Hijab in Sport and Unhelpful Media Biases

This post was written by guest contributor Shireen Ahmed (@_shireenahmed_).

One of the most exciting aspects of the Olympic Summer Games 2012 was that every participating nation sent in women athletes as part of their delegations. Media faithfully reported on the successes and stories of “hijab-clad” women participating in the London Games, the most prestigious sporting event the world of athletics has to offer.

Women who cover having a choice to participate in sport and represent their countries is definitely a global “win” for women and girls. They can be role models for active and healthy, provide leadership and mentorship, inspire and represent a truer sampling of the population. But does it also propel society’s obsession with hijab and Muslims women’s clothing?

Normalizing and including athletes who wear a headscarf, is important in the realm of sport, most of which has been dominated by athletes from privileged, Western countries.

Despite the attention, this was not the first Olympics in which Muslim women have participated nor have important history. There is quite a wonderful and relatively unknown Olympic and sporting history of Muslim women’s participation, dating back to mid-twentieth century. In fact, the first Muslim woman to win a gold medal was Nawal El Moutawakel, almost 30 years ago at the 1984 Summer Games in los Angeles. Ms. El Moutawakel is now an active and senior member of the International Olympic Selection Committee. There were also a large number of Muslimah athletes and first time Olympians (not all headscarf-wearing) with exceptional stories of determination, performance and passion for their sport. Amazingly, Turkey sent more female athletes to the 2012 Games than they did male athletes – most of whom do not wear a headscarf to compete.

However, there seems to be a bias from media and incessant focus on hijab-wearing athletes.

There have been many, many Muslim women competing in athletics at an International level in various tournaments and competitions — most of it, unreported.  Sertac Sehlikoglu, a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and my colleague at Muslim Women in Sports , has argued that a disproportionate amount of media attention has been garnered by hijab-wearing athletes over their non-covered Muslim sister athletes:

“Particularly in the international media, there is a focus on Muslim athletes wearing the hijab and that has been to the detriment of non-hijab wearing athletes. For example, there was a disproportionate focus on the Saudi athlete [Wojdan Shaherkani- KSA] who took part this year even though she was was only a blue belt in Judo and was trained by her father”.

Ruqaya Al-Ghasara. [Source].

Many Muslim women athletes may have been relatively ignored by media until due to the fact that participating members did not wear hijab, despite representing countries with a Muslim majority. Bahrain’s Ruqaya Al Ghasarawas the first women to represent her country in head-to-toe hijab in 2008.

She is certainly not the only Muslim woman to succeed in Track and Field events. Habiba Ghribi competed and was also used heavily as a political tool and pawn by post-Arab Spring political movements in her home country of Tunisia. But that story is far less appealing than that a woman running while wearing hijab. Nor does Ghribi’s appearance highlight western society’s obsession with Muslim women’s choice of clothing. In fact, Habiba Ghribi, like many of her fellow athletes, does not wear hijab, yet she is also Muslim.

In mainstream media, it seems far more desirable to post pictures of covered women competing alongside less covered women.  Perhaps it provides Western media outlets a sense of self-congratulation that they are accepting and including identifiably Muslim women in their coverage. History will tell us that using hijab-wearing athletes to represent all Muslim women athletes is unfair and unrealistic.

Without diminishing the importance of inclusion of hijab in sportwhich is absolutely necessary – it is important to recognize when and how the distinction is made between the needs of hijab-wearing athletes and non-hijab-wearing athletes. Issues of concern for both are similar: fighting cultural expectations, low funding from state, lack of support and exposure from community, outdated facilities etc.

We understand that clothing should not be a deterrent or obstacle for women to participate.  This summer, the politics of hijab in sports were very heavily considered, particularly as the International Football Association Board struck down a very criticized and exclusionary hijab ban.  As an ardent football supporter and player for 30 years, I know firsthand that a huge barrier to women and girls playing soccer in North America in proper leagues for the last 20 years has definitely been due to the strict adherence to clothing regulations. I, as much as anyone, was elated when a prototype for hijab was allowed in FIFA sanctioned play.

Habiba Ghribi. [Source].

But to gain media notoriety for wearing hijab while would actually be counterproductive as a Muslim player. My intention while playing is to please God and keep my body in shape. It is also to persevere and win — regardless of what my uniform looks like. I have played with many Muslim women, and the goals and objectives are the same for all of us, irrespective of whether we wear hijab. It would also be disingenuous to separate me from fellow Muslimah athletes, a forced separation induced by media.

When I was excluded from competitive football clubs as a result of my decision to wear hijab, I played in a very supportive league for Muslim women. Although it was not secluded, it was segregated; it provided female officials and discouraged – but did not outright ban – male spectators. It was in public and the players were comprised of women from 16 years of age and up, a multitude of skill levels and ethnic backgrounds. We were all players, hijab or not. No judgement. No distinction.

Muslim women in sports are still in a minority. There is much need to continue to foster women’s comfort and access to sport for entire Muslim communities and their needs. Female-only clubs and leagues or global sporting events have proven to be successful and encouraging and pioneering in most cases and have helped encourage Muslim women to be more active and fit.

“As Muslims we were not happy that Muslim ladies were not involved in international events,” Faezeh Hashmi, organizer of the Muslim Women’s Games, explains. “We wanted to bring them out of their isolation and bring them out in the arenas; to give them the right to compete.”  These events and initiatives support choice of clothing, access to facilities,  proper instruction, safety and privacy with lack of intimidation.

Although there may be allowability and a much appreciated sense of welcome for Muslim women in hijab to compete, there are still those who wish to participate in segregated environments. For some it’s to not compromise on their personal beliefs and for some it may also be shyness and possibly modestly. I train in a women’s-only facility and although I am most welcome at the co-ed gym with my hijab, I prefer to exercise and train in the privacy of a women’s-only environment. Many women (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) share similar opinions.

I recognize that I am fortunate to have the resources and opportunity to make that choice. Having athletics as a huge part of my life is a privilege and an option many women do not have.

While lauding an athlete’s decision to wear hijab while competing is far more prefered than berating it, exploiting her situation and distinguishing her from other Muslimah athletes is unjust, particularly when “hijab in sport” is still far from being a universally accepted idea, mainly in parts of Europe, despite international bodies regulating the practice. This is a topic that generates much (read: unwanted, unnecessary) discussion. It often centers around how athletes are perceived by others and reduces the athlete to her outfit. It has no relation to accomplishments, struggles and journey as an athlete and is divisive.

“In this media coverage, whether on TV, radio or on paper, there is emphasised focus on veiled images of Muslim women which can be seen as another way of sexualising women, though through veiling in this case,” says Sehlikoglu. Embracing female Muslim athletes is important. To support their right to play, participate and grow is not dependant on the amount of clothing they may wear. Focusing on more pressing issues such as barriers to safety, access and other systems of support is far more important.

As Muslimah athletes push forward in their accomplishments, understanding is essential.  If you’re going to stand with us, represent us in mainstream media, report our stories – then report on all of us. Not on the ones of a glossy, ready for production move that perhaps can be translated into “a Muslim woman being ‘free’ to compete,” despite hijab, oppressive and patriarchal-background story-line or a sexualization of our identities.

We all work the same and sweat the same – hijab or not. We’re all sportswomen, all athletes.

  • K C Thomas

    Shireen is right when she says “My intention while playing is to please God and keep my body in shape. It isalso to persevere and win—regardless of what my uniform looks like ….”
    She believes in sports and also modesty. Fair minded people will appreciate her stand though may not recommend hijab.Whether in sports or in public, what is the purpose in wearing revealing clothes ? Let us answer this sincerely


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