On hijab, women and sports

(Photo courtesy of the Washington Post) The Iranian women's soccer team in their modified hijab.

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the issue of Muslim women who have found their participation in sports on a world-class level restricted because of their refusal to compete without head coverings and clothes that conceal their arms and legs.

Clearly, as I said yesterday, this is going to continue to be an issue as more and more Muslim women seek to compete in sports on a global level.  I just didn’t realize I’d get more proof of that today.

From the Guardian:

The Iranian national women’s team was banned from a qualifying match for the 2012 London Olympics against Jordan because of the Islamic clothing worn by the players. In Iran, the decision has been criticised by everyone from the head of women’s affairs at the Iranian Football Federation to President Ahmadinejad himself.

And as if that isn’t bad enough:

Discussion around Islamic clothing in international competitions is a recurring issue. In 2010, the Iranian women’s youth team was refused participation in the Youth Olympics in Singapore because of the headscarf. Negotiations between the Iranian Football Federation and Fifa followed, and a compromise was reached where the team was allowed to wear headgear that did not cover the neck, allowing Iran to return to the field.

The Iranian team that came out to play in Jordan this year wore the same headgear previously given the green light by Fifa. Ali Kafashian, the head of the Iranian Football Federation, wrote in a letter to Sepp Blatter that Iran had received only one document from Fifa relating to the kit since the 2010 Youth Olympics. That document, received on March 7 2011 (before the game against Jordan) confirmed the agreement between the two parties from the year before. The only addition to the team’s outfit was in fact their shirts, which now covered their necks.

The dispute over the clothing worn by observant Muslim women has affected more than just the Iranian women’s soccer team.  I wrote about aspiring Olympic weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah yesterday, but women who swim, are gymnasts, who play volleyball and who box, for crying out loud, have been challenged on the basis of the clothing they wear while competing.

I mean, seriously, you cannot possibly tell me that a woman who chooses to get into a boxing ring for fun is being oppressed by a piece of cloth she wears over her head.

The lady athletes, who, like all athletes who desire to compete at the highest levels of their games, have been innovative in trying to meet the requirements put out by the athletics governing bodies while still remaining true to their faith.  In the case of the Iranian women’s soccer team, they have modified their head scarves to meet the safety standards put out by FIFA (and evidently, at one time, those changes were satisfactory).

But there is obviously a growing need to deal with this, especially as Muslims comprise anywhere between one-fourth and one-fifth of the world’s population, which is why some people are stepping in to create solutions that will allow Muslim women to observe the tenets of their faith while taking part in the sports they love.

From ABC News:

Seyed Javad came up with the ResportOn athletic hijab. It is a tight sleeveless piece that is worn underneath a regular uniform. It covers the head and torso and has an opening in the back of the neck that can be used to fix hair without taking the entire piece off. The extremely light material allows ventilation and dries 14 times faster than cotton.

Since outfitting the taekwondo team, demand has poured in from all over the world, from both Muslim and non-Muslim women. She has also received offers from potential distributors all over the world.

“I want the athlete to be judged by her talent and capacity to play, not by her religious beliefs,” Seyed Javad said.

While the officials in charge say the issue is presumably about safety, it seems to me that this is more about the anxiety a lot of people in the Western world feel when it comes to Muslims.  (For a good example of this see, well, see the entire GOP debate earlier this week. And much of our national discourse over the past ten years.)

This issue plays out in a way I find particularly ironic when it comes to Muslim women and their headcoverings.  Suddenly people who could not have given a pigeon’s shit about women’s rights are suddenly styling themselves as the next coming of Bella Abzug.  Suddenly it seemed everyone was concerned about the oppressed women of the Muslim world, how they are being kept down by religious tenets that require they cover their heads, and in some places, cover their bodies.

To which I say, clothes don’t oppress people – people oppress people.  (See what I did there?)  A woman who wears a hijab is no more or no less oppressed than a woman who wears a string bikini.  You simply cannot tell these things by looking at the clothes a woman wears.

If we really do care about women’s liberation and freedom, then we have to accept that just as true freedom means the right to go without a bra or wear a teeny skirt, it also means the right to wear your hair covered or long-sleeved shirts in the summer or skirts that brush the ground.

Yet we don’t ever really see people having these conversations about, say, LDS women who avoid sleeveless shirts to hide their temple garments or Orthodox women who wear wigs to cover their hair, nor do you really see them about women who undergo surgery to increase their breast size or who mutilate their feet to wear high-heels.  We only ever see this debating happening with regards to Muslim women.

But let’s assume critics are arguing in good faith and not out of some latent Islamophobia – if we really do believe these things, then why on earth are sports organizations keeping them from taking part in a culture that has empowered women all over the world?   Talk to any woman who has ever seriously played a sport, and she is likely to tell you that doing so helped her develop confidence in her mental and physical strength, taught her how to persevere in the face of challenges both external and internal, and how to believe in herself.

Self-confidence, strength, perseverance – these are the things that will help women resist oppression, not telling them what they can and cannot wear.

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6 responses to “On hijab, women and sports

  1. I usually agree with you, but WHEN IN ROME … DO AS THE DAMNABLE ROMANS DO. Ladies, look up the origin of the word “uniform”. It’s not even an anti-religious thing. Don’t believe me? Jewish men compete without insisting they wear a yamukah (forgive me if I misspelled that); therefore, muslim women can compete without headscarves.

    • Do they? See, I wouldn’t even think to ask Jewish men who wear them to do that. How does it affect their ability to play? It doesn’t.

      I went to look this up to see an example, and I found several sites dedicated to “sport yarmulkes.” I also found examples of athletes who did wear yarmulkes while competing, and controversies that surrounded athletes who wanted to compete while wearing them. I thought that was interesting.

      I don’t think it’s that easy as “take it off or don’t play.” The women have already show that they will not play. So what does this prove, that we will stick to rules no matter what the outcome is? Even if those rules are ultimately pretty arbitrary? Is it the principle of the matter? And what of the organization trying to represent athletes from around the world? Should they amend that to be “athletes from around the world except Muslim societies”? That’s a lot of women being excluded right off the bat.

      I say all of this as an atheist, but I was raised Mormon and I know how serious people can be about their religiously-oriented clothing. I may not agree with them, but I also don’t think it’s my right to say, “ditch your garments/head covering or GTFO.”

  2. I agree that women should be allowed to wear any clothing they wish except where it would create a safety hazard. Hijabs on a soccer field? Not a hazard. Skirts that reach to the ground might be a different issue but that’s not the case here.

    However, I don’t think the Iranian athletes are necessarily making the decision to forfeit rather than unveil because of their religious beliefs. If they unveiled, they’d probably be subject to threats and violence once they returned to Iran. They really don’t have the same freedom to cover or not that Kulsoom Abdullah has. I agree they should be allowed to play and that clothing shouldn’t matter (especially when it was already okayed!). But I also can’t pretend that their (meaning, women who live in Iran or other theocratic nations, not Muslims in general) decision to cover is 100% voluntary, and not because of social pressure (like the pressure to wear bikinis or high heels), but because of very real legal pressure.

    And people do make ignorant comments about temple garments or Orthodox Jewish clothing, probably not nearly to the same extent, but it happens. I remember controversy about a removed bike lane in a Hasidic neighborhood in NYC on a bike blog where the anti-Orthodox sentiments just kept flying (although, to be fair, the Hasids were in the wrong there, IMO).

  3. Hi all
    I was wondering if anyone could help me please. I do sport and the head scarf’s I wear during my training and racing are not very comfortable- I easily get very hot in them. is there any chance if anyone could direct me to the scraf that those girls wearing (above in the picture) Please please direct me! Thanks

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