It isn’t a surprise to hear that women conquered the Olympics. In several Olympic teams, including Canada, the majority of medallists were female athletes. This emphasises the importance of supporting programmes that encourage women and girls in sport.
What is more, there was a specific group of women who surprised and delighted in Rio: Muslim women. These incredible athletes, both veiled and unveiled, lit up tracks, stages and competition venues. From the United States to Azerbaijan, Muslim women competed on the world’s most prestigious sporting stage – and triumphed.
One of the major issues facing Muslim women athletes is the need to be able to wear what is most appropriate for them. In other words, women should be able to choose to wear hijab (the veil that covers the head and chest), particularly if they are obliged to cover up by their home country, as they are, for example, in Iran, Saudi Arabia and some Gulf nations. However, it is important to keep in mind that mandatory covering is not required by every Muslim majority country.
During the Olympics, discussions around the clothing choices and preferences of Muslim women were often over-simplified. In an article for The Daily Beast, I argued that incessant focus on the hijab was too simple and overlooked the years of history in which Muslim women contributed to sports. Furthermore, women who train as top athletes should be able to speak for themselves and fight against misogynist policies.
Recognising the importance of supporting women as they chose their own sportswear and attire is crucial. It would be disingenuous to claim solidarity otherwise. Currently, there are hijab bans in place that restrict women from playing and enjoying the sports they love. FIBA, the governing federation of basketball, still does not permit players to wear head coverings. This ruling also affects turban-wearing Sikh men and Jewish men who want to wear a kippa. The result is that thousands of players are excluded from the sport.
The 2016 Olympic Games showed what opening up competition can do for so many from Muslim communities. Not only does the sight of a diverse range of athletes encourage young girls to start dreaming, they make the idea of an athlete in a hijab, or in long sleeves, normal. They broaden the scope of what an athlete may look like. This is critical for women who many not feel comfortable in certain kit or uniforms.
The rich histories of Muslim women in sport have shown that clothing is not an obstacle for athletes. Their perseverance is a testament to the power of sport.
The Women’s Sport Trust continues to advocate and has consistently worked on challenges facing women from various backgrounds. It is important to help Muslim women engage in healthy lifestyles in a positive way. They need support from relevant organisations and sports authorities. Solidarity is important, particularly since regulations about what women wear is very much a feminist issue, relating to ethnicity, faith as well as gender. Obviously the need to ensure safety is essential, but there are so few (read: no) documented cases of injuries from a headscarf to the hijab-wearing player or her opponent in any sport.
It also challenges the notion that men may arbitrarily decide what is best for female athletes. Decades of involvement and activism from women has proved that we are capable of setting our own terms to help us compete at the highest levels – or play recreationally – in a positive manner.
The incessant conversations around Muslim women’s clothing can be toxic. But women have been taking up the cause. The burkini ban in over a dozen coastal French towns outraged people around the world. Pictures of a Muslim woman being forcibly disrobed by armed police appeared in newspapers and on the internet.
The politics of a Muslim swimming costume are not only steeped in gendered Islamophobia, they are a specific attack on a woman’s body autonomy. Fortunately, women have stepped up and not only objected in forums online, but there were protests (in the form of beach parties) held in London and one planned for Toronto. Not only is this a fantastically creative way to protest, but it unites women in an issue that affects women. There can be no tolerance for men declaring what is acceptable and comfortable for a woman to wear as she swims, surfs and enjoys herself in a non-threatening manner.
There have been objections from people who argue that those with sun allergies or sensitive skin need to cover up as well. These people must do so for health reasons. But would they be forced to uncover? And how do you differentiate between those who observe covering-up as a religious practice and those who need it for health reasons?
The blatent misogyny of this burkini ban is obvious, particularly as men have not been ordered to wear Speedos. If the problem is Islam penetrating the pebbled beaches of France, why not insist that men adhere to a certain style of swimsuit as well? Observant Muslim men often wear longer swimming trunks. They are also required to be modest in their attire. But this attack is clearly directed at women. It is insufferable and cannot and should not be tolerated.
The ban has since been overturned by the Council of State, but I am unconvinced that this is the last we have seen of men commanding how women dress. Moving forward, I am confident resistance movements and protests will attract the support necessary to supress it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shireen Ahmed is a sports activist and freelance writer who focuses on issues of race and gender in sport and society. She is an athlete, advocate, community organiser, and works with Youth of Colour on empowerment projects and is an avid sports coach and mentor. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a global sports correspondent for Safe World for Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sport website. Shireen writes a blog ‘Tales from a Hijab Footballer’, and is currently working on her first book. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her family. Shireen’s latest articles.