November 30, 2012 By Abdul Basith

Sporty, Yet Devout


Disputes have put their heads out in the sporting world, keeping the athletes in a difficult situation of choosing between their faith and a career in sports. Muslim women, who look forward to a promising career in sports and games, are being victimized by way of imposing limitations on their choice of clothing.

Muslim women have started to assert their voice and mark their presence. This contradicts with the popular image of them being cooped up in harem. One of the arenas where their visibility is more marked is sports.

However, repressive measures adopted by supreme sports bodies of denying them choice to wear hijab are seen by analysts as reflections of uneasiness of Islamophobic elements on one hand and the religious patriarchy on the other over the visibility of Muslim women. The ban does not only affect Muslim women but women who belong to other faiths and traditional societies who fear to expose themselves to the gaze of cameras. The motive of hidden sexuality in sports is a factor which we can’t lose out on today’s sexualized public space.

FIFA ban on hijab:

Firstly, there was the FIFA ruling which banned Iranian women football team from playing a crucial Olympic qualifier saying that it forbids players from displaying “political, religious or personal statements”. The ban came into effect in 2007 and was retrieved only after the Iran team was prevented from taking part in the 2012 London Olympics qualifier.  It was the FIFA vice president Prince Ali of Jordan, who after his inception made some serious efforts to make the supreme football body to think otherwise.

Ban has also been in place citing health and safety issues. A few international sports bodies say that there are chances that scarves worn around the neck posed a possible choking threat on the field, as the players gets pulled by their scarves [especially in Judo and Football], and the recent ban on five Muslim girls from the taekwondo tournaments held at Montreal has cited this threat as the sole reason.

Another justification for banning sport-hijab came from the International weight lifting federation which regulated that uniforms should be collarless and is not supposed to cover elbows or knees, essentially because judges need to see that a competitor’s elbows and knees are locked during a lift. [The National, UAE Sport, by Paul Radley].

However there were positive signs, too. The judo sports authorities and the Saudi Olympic Committee agreed on allowing a Saudi judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj. Abdulrahim Shaherkani to compete with her hair covered; she and runner Sarah Attar were actually Saudi’s first women to compete at any Olympics. Islamic states Brunei and Qatar have also sent female athletes to the Games for the first time. Even Muslim women boxers were allowed to wear hijab in competition.

“This shows that being a modest Muslim woman is no barrier to taking part in sport. It shows the inclusiveness of the Olympic spirit,” said Razan Baker, spokeswoman for the Saudi Olympic Committee. [Reuters, FaithWorld, By Mohammed Abbas].

Dr Emma Tarlo, a reader in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of ‘Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith’ says “Sports clothing has lagged behind school uniforms and street style in terms of diversity; which is why the new type of ‘sports hijab’-  addressing health and safety concerns and allowed bans to be overturned – has been so helpful.” [The Guardian, Olympics 2012, by Homa Khaleeli]

“I want the athlete to be judged by her talent and capacity to play, not by her religious beliefs,” says Seyed Javad the Canada based sport hijab designer who doesn’t wear a headscarf herself [abc News, by Christina NG, June 14 2011]. She was the one who successfully introduced the ResportOn athletic hijab. Now, it is not just from the Muslim women all over the world she is receiving orders and instead from non-Muslim women and men, who wants to keep the long tresses out of their faces.

Swimming has been a competitive item, worst hit by regulations. Restrictions with regards to the swim suit, which asks them to leave their necks, arms and half the legs uncovered, almost making them feel that they are half naked keeps many talented women, including non-Muslims, away from these types of events.

Many Britons now have started raising the issue that very short skirts and tight tops in British schools are a barrier to even non-Muslim teenage girls doing sport.

“I have done research that shows that women have been put off sport because of clothing – that’s part of the problem with swimming for instance. Others have been excluded from sport because of what they wear”, says Dr Emma Tarlo [The Guardian, Olympics 2012, by Homa Khaleeli]

Still there stays an argument that the swim suits [especially like that of the high tech LZR used in Beijing Olympics] are far more water resistant than human skin and so gives an unfair advantage while swimming. So there are chances that any increase in the swim suit size will be viewed as a way of enhancing performance. Given, the swim suit designers turns successful in coming up with materials equalling the water resistance offered by Human skin [as how few designers successfully introduced ‘safe sporty hijabs’ preventing any chances of choking], this argument too would loss its credibility and hopefully we can see hijab wearing women competing in Olympic pools as well.

Fencing has been an area, where the dress regulations has turned out to become a boon to these pious women, and surprisingly there are Muslim women who preferred Fencing as a sports item and excelled in it, foreseeing an advantage they has with the rules which asks them to cover up under safety grounds.  And the best example is Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who turned out to become the first person to represent the US at the Olympics wearing a hijab. She was found saying that, Fencing was her choice because it allowed her to cover her body without even altering the uniform. This instance very well reveals the devout women’s passion towards sports and her will power to engage in sports despite compromising on the item she preferred to contest, and it is a pointer towards how important is ‘faith and sports’ to her individuality and existence.

It is true that, what the women athletes should wear? – deserves less attention than it does; but for women who want to cover up, it should not stay a barrier once they prefer to compete. Sport is about individual empowerment, and competitive sport is about the celebration of the human body at its best, and justice on this regard prevails only when the pious and devout women too are given equal opportunity to take their individual empowerment to the level of celebration, being covered if they like to.

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