In the Name of the Game(s) – Muslim Female Athletes at the 2012 London Olympics

The 2012 London Olympics have had a strong focus on women: for the first time women will be competing in all sports and every country has sent at least one female athlete.

Zulfiya Chinshanlo, Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting. Image via the Toronto Star.

While this does all look mighty good on paper, “male” sports remain overall more popular and male athletes are often better paid, make use of better facilities (flying business vs. flying coach) and receive more face time than their female counterparts. And while much of the attention female athletes receive is focused on their looks (beach volleyball anyone?), the major decision-makers in sports are still predominantly male. (It should be added that 1984 gold medalist Nawal el Moutawakel is now the first woman from a Muslim nation in the role of Vice President of the International Olympic Committee.)

For Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this will be the first time sending a female athlete to the Olympic Games. All three countries are, and this has been pointed out numerous times, Muslim-majority nations. Both Qatar and Brunei let the world know early on that they will be sending in female athletes for these Games. The tiny Asian nation of Brunei is sending one female this year, hurdler Maziah Mahusin, which does not seem like a lot, but in 2008 Brunei did not even participate in the Games, and the country has sent in only four athletes to previous Games. Mahusin is part of a delegation that consists of three athletes in total. Qatar has been more successful, sending sizeable teams to previous Games.  This year, Qatar has sent four female athletes, competing in four different disciplines, and says it will continue to promote women’s sports in the country. This is no surprise; Qatar has aspirations to host several major international sport events (lost the bid for the 2020 Olympics), and will host the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2022.

And then Saudi Arabia: a country without a real history of competitive sports for women, with a strict female dress code, and under conservative rule. Was Saudi Arabia going to let women even compete? And yes, so it was. After all, even Saudi Arabia cares when it comes to the Olympic Games. It is doubtful whether this will actually change the climate for women athletes within the country, but let’s remain positive. Sarah Attar, one of the two athletes, is a child of a Saudi father and American mother and has been running competitively in California, without headscarf, but with Saudi citizenship. It is expected that Sarah Attar will compete in more conservative attire, when representing her country, as she has already done several interviews and public appearances while donning a headscarf. The other athlete is Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, a Saudi judoka, who is living in Saudi Arabia and has been trained at home by her father. While it was for a long time unclear whether or not Shaherkani would actually compete, because judo has banned the headscarf in the sports, she did compete on August 3rd with an adjusted headscarf. She lost her match in 82 seconds.

It shouldn’t be all about the headscarf, of course, but a lot of the news seems to be.  The United Arab Emirates weightlifting athlete, Khadijah Mohammad, has been training and competing in front of the camera without a headscarf, but will wear a headscarf when competing at the Olympics. The participation of the UAE weightlifters in the Olympics was, in fact, even pending on whether or not a more modest attire would be permitted in this discipline. There is no ruling in the UAE that women should wear a headscarf in public, and the other female athlete representing the UAE, Ethiopia-born Bethlem Deslagn Belayneh, does not, and is not expected to wear the hijab either.

The recent decision by FIFA to allow the headscarf on the soccer field came too late for the Iranian soccer team. They will not be competing at this year’s Olympics, despite the fact that they are considered to a be a strong team and capable to make a difference on the Olympic stage. There will be other Iranian female athletes, who all have to wear the headscarf, competing in sports, like shooting, rowing and table tennis.

For some athletes, their personal choice of wearing the veil has left them in a dilemma. Egyptian pentathlete Aya Medany, for example, has been a medal hopeful at the previous Olympics, and even though she disappointed in Beijing, placing “only” 8th, she is once again considered a major contender for the gold medal in her discipline. She even made it to the BBC shortlist of African athletes to watch. While she would love to get to the medal stage this time around and prove her abilities as an athlete, her recent decision to start wearing the headscarf has had a huge impact on her athletic career. As a hijabi, Medany wanted to compete in the swimming section of her sport in a “modest swimsuit”, but she is, according to international regulations, not allowed to do so. Aya Medany is now contemplating to leave the sport just after the Olympics, at age 24.

Feta Ahamada is a female athlete, competing at the 100m sprint at the upcoming Olympics. She hails from the Comoros, a Muslim island nation just off the east coast of continental Africa, and while she chooses not to cover up, she stresses that it should be the decision of the athlete how she wants to compete. Due to her wish to pursue an athletic career, Ahamada has moved to France; she says that she is very thankful to her parents that they have supported her in this decision, and acknowledges that this must not have been easy to them. Ahamada did qualify in the preliminaries for the first round of the 100m, but has failed to make it further.

Kosovar/Kosovan athletes were hoping to represent their country for the first time at these Olympics, but like many nations, international sporting federations have yet to accept Kosovo’s status as an independent nation. In May the International Olympic Committee had turned down Kosovo’s bid to the Olympics, leaving athletes look for different options, like judoka Majlinda Kelmindi, who holds an Albanian passport too, who will now compete for Albania. For Lumturie and Utara Rama, cousins and both shooters, this decision means that they are not able to compete at the Olympics at all.

Wrestler Aisuluu Tynybekova is the first female wrestler to compete for her country, Kyrgyzstan, and because of that, and a lack of financial funds, she has trained with male wrestlers only. This was not the only hurdle Tynybekova had to overcome to reach London 2012, she was also charged with hooliganism, allegedly beating up another girl last April. The girl’s family was looking for Tynybekova’s disqualification from the Olympic team, but as she is a medal hopeful, the trial has been put on hold until she returns from the Games. She could face up to five years in prison, if found guilty. While Tynybekova meets resistance as a Kyrgyz girl competing in wrestling, in Somalia (young) women have been competing for the one spot available at the London Olympics in very difficult circumstances. Their stadium was bullet-ridden, and there was little support for female athletes at all. Zamzam Mohamed Farah is the one female athlete to represent Somalia in athletics, running the 400m.

Sadaf Rahimi, a young Afghan boxer, hoped to be the first Afghan woman to represent her country in this new Olympic addition: female boxing. She had received a wildcard invitation, and trained hard to get her performance up to international standards. Unfortunately for her, on July 18 the International Boxing Association decided that Rahimi could not compete in boxing, because they cannot guarantee her safety in the ring when she meets opponents of completely different calibre. The only female athlete to represent Afghanistan this year is Tahmina Kohestani, who will compete in the 100m sprint on August 3rd. Before the Games she was subject to frequent harassment, from people who thought that it was against their honor that a Muslim Afghan girl would represent Afghanistan at the Games.

There was a completely different first for Malaysian Nur Suryani Mohamad Taibi, who was 8 months pregnant when she competed in shooting last weekend at the Olympics, which makes her the “most pregnant” athlete ever to compete at the Games. She did not make it to the finals, however, but remains positive about her future career, promising to keep competing after the birth.

The first medal for a Muslim woman at these 2012 London Olympics went to Kazakhstani weightlifter Zulfiya Chinshanlo, who won a gold medal in the 53 kilogram category, and has bettered her own world record by doing so. Another Kazakhstani athlete, Maiya Maneza, won gold in weightlifting too, a few days later. Both girls are, according to Kazakh information, Dungans. The Dungan are Muslims of Chinese origin, who fled to Central Asia in the 19th century. According to officials from the Chinese Hunan Province Sports Bureau, however, both girls are, in fact, Chinese, which would explain the fact that neither of girls were able to speak Kazakh, and both spoke only a little Russian, when a journalist visited their training camp earlier this year.

Of course the 2012 Olympics are far from over, and there are many other stories still evolving, and I am sure, there are many other stories concerning Muslim female athletes that I have missed. With over 10,000 athletes from 205 countries competing, it is just mission impossible to keep track of them all! Feel free to add links to stories and results of Muslim female athletes in the comments!

  • Maria

    What about Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina? She won the bronze medal in the individual all around competition. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she’s a Muslim Tatar. Btw, great article showcasing the Muslim Female Athletic talent!

  • anneke

    @ Maria, I have seen her name mentioned a few times, and I have read also that she was/is of Tatar descent, even though I do not think she ever said she is Muslim, but completely missed her bronze medal… Should have mentioned it! Thanks!

  • http://www.mwsf.org.uk Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation (MWSF)

    Great review! To find more female Muslim Olympians visit the MWSF website where we are keeping track of as many of them as possible. A schedule of when athletes are competing is tweeted every morning (@themwsf) and the results of their endeavours are updated on the website daily – http://www.mwsf.org.uk

    Btw Aliya Mustafina has, since the last posts, now won a total of 2 x Bronze, 1 x Silver & 1 x Gold! Also Mavzuna Chorieva of Tajikistan won a Bronze in the women’s boxing & Tunisian runner Habiba Ghribi won Silver in the 3000m Steeplechase!


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