Muslimahs at the Beijing Olympics

MMW thanks HijabStyle for the links!

With the Olympics in full swing, I thought I’d take a quick peek at the way in which media was presenting the participation Muslim women, if they were at all. Initially, while watching the opening ceremony, I heard tidbits of references to the women competitors from Muslim countries such as Pakistan, noting the number of Muslim women competing. So I thought I’d go searching on the internet to see just how the participation of Muslim women was being presented.

A few themes emerged:

1.This is the first time!

Oman sent a woman to the Olympics for the first time. 16-year-old Buthaina Yaqoubi “will compete in the 100-meter dash and either the long jump or the triple jump.” Her participation is seen as ground breaking in the country with the hope that more women will be able to follow in her footsteps and increase their participation in the Olympic and the Olympic committee. Let’s hope this is true.

Additionally, Sheikha Maitha Mohammad Rashed Al-Maktoum, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammad of the UAE, will also be competing in tae kwon do. She is the first female athlete to be sent by the country. Being the daughter of the sheikh, I have to wonder whether she had an easier time of getting to the Olympics. I hope that she has opened the gate and paved the way for other women as opposed to only taken advantage of her privileged position, which others will not be able to do.

2. Men-only Olympic Teams Unethical

Many sites pointed out that some feel that the countries that allow men-only Olympic teams should be barred. Unfortunately the only countries which outright ban women from participating in the Olympics are Muslim countries – Saudi Arabia (surprise, surprise) and Brunei (and until recently the U.A.E). In a well written criticism Ali Al-Ahmed states that

While the hypothetical example of participating countries barring black athletes from the Olympic Games would have rightly caused international outrage, the committee continues to allow the participation of countries that do not allow women on their Olympic teams.

A point well taken. Indeed barring a race or religion of people from participating would be highly offensive and intolerable. Yet the barring of women, for some reason, is not contested. The argument Al-Ahmed presents is one of human rights.

However, Al-Ahmed makes the incorrect insinuation that Iran does not allow women to participate. Iranian women have been participating in the Olympics since the ’60s. Though there are restrictions as to which sports they can participate in based on the clothing worn for the sport. Nonetheless, his overall argument is one to be taken seriously. Saudi Arabia and Brunei discriminate against people based on their gender and they should face a form of punishment, argues Al-Ahmed. Most of the articles did not mention that these countries were mainly Muslim, but Al-Ahmed did make the connection. It is embarrassing that these Muslim countries have such a ban. Considering that most Muslim countries allow women to participate, Saudi Arabia and Brunei have no excuse to exclude women, other than misogyny of course. And in the meantime, all Muslims will once again be labeled as misogynist.

However, having said that, it is important to note that just as recently as 1992 there were 35 all-male Olympic teams, only half of which, were Muslim countries. It was only after much lobbying that lead to only 4-5 all-male teams by 2004. In 2008 the only all-male teams, it seems according to reports, are Muslim ones – Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Qatar, and Kuwait.

3. Very Few Women

Although most Muslim countries do allow Muslim women to participate, it seems from the numbers that they indeed are in quite a small minority. In this article, it seems that most Muslim countries are sending on average two women. However, this article tells us that Egypt is sending 26 women to the Olympics.

It is important to point out here that there are only 15 women on the 135-member International Olympic Committee. The Olympics in general needs a sex overhaul. Women need a greater role when it comes to the Olympics.

4. What Will They Wear?

And of course, can we talk about Muslim women without talking about their clothing? It seems not. And much of the coverage of Muslim female participants has been surrounding their clothing. To veil or not to veil? This article discusses how the Olympics this year will see a “sprinkling” of hijabs. I am not sure why this is worth covering, but apparently it seems Reuters is quite surprised or shocked that women can actually compete in sports while wearing a head covering. One would assume that it is quite a simple feat. Quoting Muslim women athletes, the article makes clear that the hijab is not at all a hinderance, but rather a symbol of pride for the women. Again, why is this news? Women in Muslim countries have been playing sports for generations wearing what is culturally appropriate for them, sometimes including a head cover.

Additionally, there seems to be much surprise that some of these Muslim women actually wear clothing different than what those in non-Muslim countries do. Even without a head cover many Muslim female athletes may wear full body suits as opposed to traditional Western swimming suits, or wrestling suits. Why are all women expected to dress the same in sports? As long as the clothing allows for appropriate and necessary movement, why must we have one way of dressing while competing? The interest expressed by many news outlets is not surprising, but is getting old. Yes, women around the world do not dress the same, including while competing in sports. Get over it. It’s really not a big deal. And if they are going to cover Muslim women in
the Olympics, what about those Muslim women who do not wear hijab?

The four themes appeared most blatant to me. Although other messages were present, these four were most common.

On a happy note:

Algerian judoka Soraya Haddad* won the first Olympic medal for Algeria, Africa, and the Arab world on Sunday (August 10th), taking bronze in the -52kg category at the 2008 games in Beijing.

* I am not sure if she is Muslim or not.

  • Aisha La Estudiante

    I really enjoyed the articles about hijabis in the Olympics. It was relieving that they had good solid quotes from sisters saying their hijab was not a hinderance. At a time when people are judging many Muslim countries, based on two.. how inspirational to see these sisters all sporty and still respecting their deen and modesty.It is inspirational for young girls to see hijabi police in London, soccer players in Canada, and Olympians.

  • Zeynab

    Aisha, while I see your point about the inspirational aspect, I think Duniya’s issue is with the fact that the ONLY coverage Muslim women are getting are based on their perceived banning from a team or their hejabs. That sends the message that Muslim women aren’t more than their clothes or their oppression, which isn’t very positive at all.

  • Rahela

    I was annoyed when the NBC commentator during the opening ceremonies kept bringing up Muslim women everytime a Muslim country delegation was shown during the parade. It went something like “And here we have Muslim country X. Look at the lack of women participating in the games for this country”. Mostly he did this with Middle Eastern Muslim countries because according to the West those are the only Muslim countries in the world!

  • I need my Sisters, where are You?

    While some people are happy about this article and view it’s contents in a postive matter, I find it rather digusting.Aisha your talking about “deen and modesty” because of the hijab but yet you ignore the fact that there is no “deen and modesty” when Muslim women are denied basic human rights. Does that make you happy? The hinderance is not there hijab but that they can’t even strive for their dreams in the Olympic games. The hinderance is Muslim men, the hinderance is their perceived notion of “deen and modesty”, the hinderance is that you have NO RIGHTS. Are you simply happy about their clothing? Right now, Muslim men are seen as the biggest abusers of human rights, of women’s rights. And so they are with “these” kinds of discriminatory treatment (maltreatment) of women. And you are happy about their clothing, when so many Muslim women athletic dreams are shattered. Muslims also view Muslim women as no more than their clothing. Their HUMAN BEINGS!This is disturbing.

  • Mizz_Kitty

    As far as I know, Brunei does not impose any ban on Muslim women to compete in sporting events particularly international events such as the South East Asian Games and the Asian Games, just to name a few. Perhaps it was just unfortunate that Brunei was “excluded” from the this year’s Olympic Games but it had nothing to do with this supposed ban.

  • Duniya

    Thanks Zeynab. That’s true.Sorry if I wasn’t clearer. The focus on the hijab is irritatiing for many reasons. First, as I mentioned, whether a woman wears a hijab or not while playing sports should not even be something to report. What’s the big deal is she wears hijab? The fact that women can compete while wearing the hijab should come as no surprise. This sort of coverage just makes the hijab something strange and different. ie. “Wow..she can compete wearing something as repressive as the hijab!” Additionally, what about the Muslim women who do not wear hijab? If they want to cover Muslim women in the Olympics then they have neglected women without hijab. And Aisha I am extremely uncomfortable with this comment of yours:”how inspirational to see these sisters all sporty and still respecting their deen and modesty.”What you’re saying here is that those Muslim women who are competing without a headscarf are NOT respecting their deen or being modest. Please refrain from judging Muslim women without a head cover. You do not know them, their modesty, or the role of Islam in their lives. So please do not judge.

  • Zeynab

    Rahela, great point. The commenters are just as bad as the rest of the media coverage. While I think Aisha has a point about the coverage being inspirational in the traditional context of the west portraying women in headscarves as unable to do ANYTHING, the overall focus on headscarves and nothing else is troubling and incomplete.

  • Faith

    I didn’t read the article. Just going off the comments here. On the one hand, it makes me puke to constantly have Muslimahs associated with our clothing. It gets tiresome to be constantly associated with our clothing as if there was nothing else to us.However, I can understand why some hijabis would be happy when we are mentioned for something positive. Unforunately, there are a lot of people who do think that hijabis don’t do crap and who do think that hijab restricts women and prevents them from being athletic.Then again, the focus on hijab does gloss over the fact that not all Muslimahs wear hijab.So it’s a catch 22. You want people to realize that Muslim women are “normal” human beings but in the process we’re still otherized.

  • gary.anderson683

    The reason that the media focus on Muslim women’s clothing is that the effect of hijabs is the opposite to that supposedly intended. As a non-believer in any religion, all I see is someone brainwashed by those in authority into wearing a ridiculous outfit which draws attention to her gender. Few other religions compel women to wear bizarre clothing. As for it being a source of pride… that’s like being proud of believing the earth is flat.

  • Zeynab

    Uh, Gary? The reason that the media focuses on the hejab is because of a Western “Otherization” of Muslims that construe them as “different” and “bad.” The headscarf is just a piece of cloth. Besides, Jewish sects have similar things you might find “bizarre”, such as wigs, hats, and scarves, as well as stockings and long skirts. You’re free to not believe in Islam or any other reason, but don’t come up into MY house and insinuate that me and my sisters that we’re stupid. If you comment again, please heed our comment policy, which includes keeping your comments respectful.

  • Duniya

    Gary:Before making comments about Muslim women you may want to live as a Muslim woman for a while. Unless you have experienced the life of a Muslim woman you really should be very careful about making such comments. Additionally, your comments demonstrate the ignorance of so many regarding Muslim women and their clothing. Why does it bother people like yourself so much if a woman covers her hair? Especially if she CHOOSES to, which many hijab-wearing women do. Your comments are not only Islamophobic and ethnocentric but also misogynistic. Just as a comparison, many Western feminists would argue that women here, non-Muslim women, are compelled by Western media to dress sexy and look slim. Could we not make the argument “what other media culture would force women to starve themselves to death to look a certain way?” However, I know that’s not an accurate representation therefore how can you say that your comment is accurate?Additionally, just in defense of Islam, Islam does not compel women to wear anything. It simply encourages modesty in all areas of life, including clothing. Muslims have different ways of interpreting modesty, some of which include the hijab.

  • Parkinson’s in Wisconsin

    Give me a break. The Olympics are suppose to be the athletes who are the best of the best in their home country. How can a Middle Eastern Country who send only one woman to run in one event (fully dressed) tell me that she qualified in her country? Who did she qualify against?If any athlete can now competed for any country (like the American woman playing basketball for Russia) then maybe I have a chance to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London representing Dubai.I think the IOC has some work to do.

  • thewhitelilyblog

    If ‘the west’ wants Muslim women to participate in the Olympics, we should dress more modestly to difuse the situation. We should do it voluntarily, as a courtesy. It would not hurt us at all. I have noticed several websites with photos of scantly-clothed US and other western female contestants with very ugly sexual comments, which should be no surprise given the extreme stimulus. Female contestants’ male counterparts in the same sport are much more modestly clothed, so it has nothing to do with skill and evrything to do with sexual exploitation. I am a practicing Catholic and I am ashamed of the dress of many western participants in the Olympics. I certainly would not want to compete in such an atmosphere, nor wish any woman or girl in my family to suffer it. I believe many others feel the same way, but we are being silenced. I thank Muslim women who dress modestly for setting a higher standard.

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