INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - Qatar pulled out of the women's basketball competition at the Asian Games on Thursday after refusing to abide by international regulations preventing them from wearing hijabs, while organizers said they were powerless to do anything about it.
The Qatari players had been asked to remove their head coverings before their opening group game against Mongolia on Wednesday, but chose to forfeit the match instead.
With no sign of the rule being relaxed ahead of their scheduled match against Nepal on Thursday, Qatar decided to withdraw from their remaining games at the 17th Asiad, which is being run under the slogan: 'Diversity Shines Here'.
“We have decided not to take part in the remainder of the Asian Games women's basketball competition,” an assistant with Qatar's National Olympic Committee told Reuters by telephone.
Nepal's players took the court for 15 minutes at the Samsan World Gymnasium, passing and shooting among themselves, before the forfeit was announced.
Both Qatar games were recorded as 20-0 defeats on the Games' official website.
The wearing of hijabs has become a hot topic in sport in recent years with Muslim athletes complaining that they are being discriminated against.
Judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani hit the headlines at the 2012 London Olympics when Saudi Arabia demanded she be allowed to compete wearing a hijab.
While international judo federation rules at the time barred her from doing so, Shaherkani was eventually allowed to compete wearing a modified veil.
Human Rights Watch told Reuters it should have been up to FIBA to prove why Qatari players should not wear headscarves.
“We oppose any general ban on wearing of headscarves and onus should be on the regulator to prove why a ban is necessary on the basis of health and safety,” it said.
“In the case of basketball, it's difficult to see how a ban on the headscarf is anything other than an unnecessary restriction on the players' rights to religious freedom and personal autonomy.”
Competition at the Asian Games is conducted under the regulations of the sports' international governing bodies, meaning athletes in other sports are free to wear hijabs.
All four bronze medal-winning rowers of Iran's lightweight women's quadruple sculls team wore hijabs on Wednesday, while Kuwait's Najlaa I M Aljerewi and Iran's Aghaei Hajiagha Soraya wore them in the triathlon and badminton events on Thursday.
Basketball remains the exception.
FIBA said earlier this month it had held discussions on the issue and was introducing a two-year 'testing phase' on what players can wear, though that only applies at the national level, not international competitions such as the Asian Games.
An official form Incheon's organizing committee had sympathy for the Qatari players but said the Games had to follow FIBA's regulations and that their hands were tied.
“There is not much IAGOC can do to help the Qatari players. We can't change FIBA regulations right now even if we consult with them,” the official told Reuters by telephone.
“Personally I feel sorry for them. All the other sports allow hijabs.”
The situation has left Qatari athletes confused and angry.
“We have to take this stand,” said Qatari player Ahlam Salem M. Al-Mana on Wednesday. “We knew about the hijab ban but we have to be here. We have to show everyone that we are ready to play, but the International Association is not ready.”
'Surprised and disappointed'
The Asian Games, which prides itself on diversity and inclusiveness, has brought 9,500 athletes from 45 countries to Incheon to compete in the world's second biggest multi-sports event after the Summer Olympics.
Mohammed Abdulla, a player on the Qatar men's team, was frustrated by the lack of consistency.
“If you go to the athletes restaurant you can see many, many Muslim athletes from Maldives, Iran, Pakistan and Qatar wearing hijabs,” he told Reuters late on Wednesday.
“How come some of the women are allowed [to wear it] in competition... when our women are not?
“I'm surprised and disappointed that the Asian Games, the Olympic committee did not allow them to compete with the hijab.”
The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) has also weighed in on the matter, issuing a statement on Wednesday that said: “The right of the athletes must be the highest priority.”
Sports federations had a duty to protect athletes and “allow them to exercise their right of freedom of choice with dignity,” OCA director general Husain Al-Musallam said.
Diversity became an issue even before the Games began on Sept. 19 when Saudi Arabia revealed that its 199-strong team did not include any female athletes.
The Saudi stance sparked criticism from Human Rights Watch, which condemned its all-male line-up, saying the ultra-conservative state was shutting the door on female athletes, having previously shown signs of wanting to break down barriers.