World Cup: Benzina’s hijab a symbol for inclusivity
Morocco defied the odds at their debut World Cup, as the first Arab nation to compete in the women's tournament. But defender Nouhaila Benzina's choice of attire may have an even bigger impact off-the-pitch
She stood tall. She stood for her country and her culture. And up against a nation that excludes women footballers who wear Islamic hijab headscarves, Nouhaila Benzina stood for her religion.
Adorned in her Moroccan red headscarf, Benzina may have been outclassed along with her teammates in a 4-0 loss against France. But the symbolism of her attire could have a greater impact than any on-field result.
The 25-year-old is the first woman to ever adorn a hijab at a World Cup. Morocco are the first Arab nation to compete at a World Cup. And they faced up to their historical colonizer, France, to represent their people in the best possible way.
“It's massive, it's going to inspire so many girls in the world, not only in Morocco, to show them that they can be and do whatever they want,” Rosella Ayane told DW.
“I'm just so happy for her. She's played really well at this tournament and she deserves it.”
Benzina played a huge role in Morocco's overachievement at this World Cup. They were expected to be cannon fodder in the group stages, especially after an opening 6-0 loss to Germany. But unlikely victories against South Korea and Colombia paved their way to the knockouts, with Benzina marshalling the defense to keep two consecutive cleansheets.
And more importantly, she's given awareness to inclusivity in sport and placed the onus on FIFA. World football's governing body had previously banned the hijab due to health and safety reasons but scrapped the ruling in 2013 after pressure from the United Nations.
Yet FIFA hasn't put any pressure on the French Football Federation (FFF) to change their own policy.
Appeal against FFF policy quashed
The French FA prohibits footballers from wearing “symbols or clothing obviously displaying one's political, philosophical, religious or trade union views” during competitions.
A group of Muslim women footballers who call themselves the “Hijabeuses” had launched legal action against the ruling, taking it to the country's highest administrative court. However, the Constitutional Council upheld the regulation in June, just weeks before the World Cup.
If the tournament had been held in France, like it was back in 2019, Benzina would not have been allowed to compete with her headscarf. It remains a sensitive topic within France where a journalist even went as far as labeling Benzina's decision to wear the hijab as “regressive” on a TV debate.
There is a large Moroccan community in France due to the country's colonial past, while there are several Muslim players within the current France squad, including Kenza Dali, who scored France's second goal.
“I respect the federation's decision, obviously they have their reasons. But personally, I don't think it bothers anyone that she wears the hijab,” Dali said to DW.
“Everyone needs to be free and feeling good and if she's feeling good that way, that's the most important thing. I'm really happy she's shown the world that it's possible to play with the hijab and that it doesn't bother anyone.
“I'm really proud of her because the light was on her. It's not easy, but she was proud and we're proud of her too.”
Morocco coach Reynald Pedros, who was born in France, has transformed the women's team since his appointment in 2021 and selected Benzina in his squad.
But he was surprisingly coy when asked by DW what Benzina's hijab meant for the Moroccan people, saying he doesn't “talk about religion”.
Team a source of pride amongst Moroccan diaspora
For Moroccan fans at Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide, however, seeing Benzina wearing the hijab was a momentous occasion.
“It's not only a big step in the course of religious integration into sport, but also accepting all aspects of where everybody comes from into sports. That's the first stepping stone and hopefully France can catch up,” one fan told DW.
“It's proof that sport is for everyone and inclusive. Freedom should be for everyone. Everyone should have the right to wear what suits them, especially women,” another fan said.
And the team's performances have also elevated their standing among fans across the world, which could have a monumental impact in Morocco. Pedros said the achievement was “as good as the men getting to the semifinal” in Qatar, while Ayane feels it's just the start of a longer journey.
“Once we sit back and reflect, I think we'll be super proud of ourselves for what we've achieved in this tournament,” she said. “We've made so much history and it's a step in the right direction for more going forward.”
“We probably inspired loads of young girls in Morocco and for me that's a win. Because you're progressing the nation's belief in women.”
Benzina and Morocco aren't the only ones to have inspired young girls at this World Cup, but her historic appearance in a hijab will remain one of the tournament's most memorable moments.