The summer Olympics in Rio took the world by surprise with the rising number of participating female athletes.
What was more surprising though was the increase in Muslim female athletes at the games, specifically those who choose to cover in hijab. Turkey was the first “Muslim country” to send a woman to compete in the 1963 Olympics. Iran was next in the 1980s. Ever since then, there appears to have been a rapid increase in participation of Muslim women in sports. Although their numbers may be increasing, female Muslim athletes have dealt with criticism for years. Many have argued that Islam is controlling and restricting to women, especially in the arena of sports. I find that it is necessary to examine the religion’s say on sports, women in sports and understand what was holding Muslim women back from participating in sports.
Islamic belief is based upon the respect of the body and the soul, encompassing the physical and the spiritual aspect of being. It states that the happiness of human beings consists of harmony between the “physical activities, which strengthen the body, and the intellectual effort, which illuminates the soul.” Prophet Muhammad advocated for health and body care saying, “Anyone who has a healthy body is secure, is able to meet his every daily tasks and own the world.” The prophet was also concerned about the unhealthy conditions he saw in his followers. He stated “Islam is neatness and cleanliness” also, “Good health comes from eating little; illness and hard-heartedness from satiety,” and “the stomach is a hospital, and diet is the basis of every cure.”
He also emphasized physical strength: “The strong believer is better and more loved by God than the weaker one.” Here he means that the strong believer is courageous and ready to face any physical obstacles. This quote can fall under spiritual interpretations as well.
Prophet Muhammad did not differentiate between the sexes, and favored physical activities for both boys and girls. He said: “The right of the child is one of obliging his father to teach him writing, swimming and archery.” In the original Arabic phrase, Prophet Muhammad used the word “Walad” which means child: it can be used for either sex. Another example of the prophet was when he raced with his wife Aisha, showing us that he did not segregate between sexes and did not differentiate between them in competitive sports or physical activities. It is clear that the Islamic religion doesn’t oppress women’s participation in sports; on the contrary, it favors such activities. But Muslim women do not participate as much in sports. Why? The explanation might be found in a different analysis, unrelated to the religion’s reasonings.
When it comes to Muslim women in sports, the real challenge is faced when an athlete observes the Islamic dress code. Many people in the West claim that wearing a headscarf disregards women’s status and symbolizes women being oppressed by the religion. The concept behind the headscarf is hard to grasp by the West especially because of the negative assumptions about Islam. Muslim women give immense importance to the way they structure their lives. Religion for them is a fundamental aspect of their identity and is the basis for how they approach everything in life.
Physical activity is one of the aspects that is determined and shaped by the basis of the religion. The view of the headscarf discourages many girls from participating in sports. Research has shown that Muslims face great challenges in Western societies due to Islamophobia causing hostility and anger toward Muslims, especially after the tragedy of 9/11. Muslim women who wear the hijab face greater challenges since their headscarves increase their visibility as Muslims. In addition to Islamophobia, the misinterpretation of the hijab by the media makes it more difficult for women to engage in physical activity. Muslim women are often associated with stereotypes and are thought to be oppressed, uneducated and segregated from the outside world, making it harder for them to approach people and communicate with others. They usually feel marginalized by their peers and experience negative attitudes from the public. Thus, it is difficult for them to engage in physical activity.
Contrary to the stereotypes about the hijab – that it oppresses women and segregates them from society — it actually represents honesty, integrity, responsibility and empowerment of the Muslim woman. Wearing a hijab is not problematic for Muslim girls when participating in physical activity, but it becomes problematic when others do not understand it. In cases where the dress code requirements are not respected by educators and other activity leaders, Muslim girls feel conflicted and are often discouraged from participating in athletics. Sports and competition facilities do not always appreciate variation from the accepted dress code.
For example, in the Olympics, girls wear clothes that expose skin, which is a major limitation for Muslim girls who cannot display their skin publicly in front of a male audience. In cases where Muslim girls are strong enough to face society and the challenges mentioned, they adopt a dress code that links the common physical activity attire with religious dress requirements. They wear long sleeves under their t-shirts to cover their arms and long pants instead of shorts to keep their legs covered. Some non-Muslims see such coping strategies as being a safety issue. For example, in 2007 the Olympics banned the Iranian women’s soccer team from playing because they were wearing headscarves, after the FIFA committee proposed that they were not safe for the players to wear because they could cause the body to conserve its heat, leading to serious health issues. The ban was lifted in 2012, but not before a similar incident occurred in Ottawa in 2010, where the sole headscarf-wearing player on a team was banned from playing.
Recently, France banned wearing the Burkini – Islamic modest swim wear — on public beaches. Headlines in the news such as “FIFA ban headscarf in soccer games” or “France banning veiling in public,” along with the misunderstanding of the Muslim women dress code further discourages some Muslim women from participating in physical activities.
In conclusion, Muslim girls choose their clothing and are well aware of the challenges that may ensue. These challenges are not a problem to them. What becomes a problem is when they feel misunderstood and discouraged to participate in these activities. Regardless of all the difficulties being faced by Muslim women in sports, the number of Muslim female athletes is still on the rise, breaking barriers along the way. Those athletes are pushing against all stereotypes and misconceptions to show the real face of Islam and Islamic values.
Here are the names of hijabi athletes that participated in the Rio 2016 Olympics:
Kamia Yousufi, born 20 May 1996 in Mashhad, Iran, is an Afghan female sprinter. She competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in the women’s 100 metres, where she finished in 22nd place in the preliminary round with a time of 14.02 seconds, a national record.
Salwa Eid Naser, born 23 May 1998, is a Bahraini track and field sprinter who specialises in the 400 metres. She was the gold medallist in that event at the 2015 World Youth Championships in Athletics and the 2015 Military World Games. She holds a personal best of 51.39 seconds.
Doaa Elghobashy born November 8, 1996 is an Egyptian beach volleyball player.Elghobashy competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The team turned heads in their first match against Germany as the team wore long sleeves and pants and Elghobashy wearing a hijab—an Olympic first in beach volleyball.
Hedaya Malak Wahba born 21 April 1993 is an Egyptian taekwondo practitioner. She participated in the 2012 and the 2016 Olympics and won a bronze medal in 2016.
Seham El Sawalhy born 14 April 1991 in Beheira is an Egyptian taekwondo practitioner. She competed in the 67 kg event at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Enas Mostafa born 1 January 1989 is an Egyptian freestyle wrestler. She competed in the women’s freestyle 69 kg
Noura Mohamed (born 5 March 1998) is an Egyptian fencer. She competed in the women’s foil event.
Nada Meawad born April 12, 1998 is an Egyptian beach volleyball player.With her partner Doaa Elghobashy, she qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro by winning the CAVB Continental Cup held in Nigeria. The pair played in Pool-D at the 2016 Summer Olympics and finished last.
Reem Mansour born 20 December 1993 is a female Egyptian recurve archer. She competed in the archery competition.
Hadir Mekhimar born November 22, 1997 in Cairo is an Egyptian sport shooter. She shared a top prize with Hungary’s István Péni in the mixed international rifle team at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics. Mekhimar made her first Olympic team for Egypt as a 16-year-old at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, where she earned a gold medal in shooting.
Fatma El Sharnouby born November 18, 1997 is an Egyptian middle-distance runner. She competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in the women’s 800 metres race.
Sara Samir Elsayed Mohamed Ahmed is an Egyptian weightlifter who won a bronze medal in the women’s 69 kg event at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Shehzana Anwar born 21 August 1989 in Nairobi is a female Kenyan recurve archer. She competed in the archery competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics .
Golnoush Sebghatollahi born 20 December 1990 is an Iranian sports shooter. She competed in the women’s 10 metre air pistol event at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Sebghatollahi is left handed and also uses her left eye
Mahlagha Jambozorg is an Iranian sports shooter. She competed in the Women’s 10 metre air rifle event at the 2012 Summer Olympics and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Neda Shahsavari born 21 September 1986 in Kermanshah is an Iranian table tennis player who qualified to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Through qualifying, she became the first Iranian woman to represent Iran in table tennis for the 2012 Olympic Games. She was born in the western city of Kermanshah and she studied physical education at university. She has also qualified to play in her second olympics, at Rio 2016.
Elaheh Ahmadi is an Iranian sports shooter. At the 2012 Summer Olympics, she reached the final in the women’s 10 metre air rifle and also competed in the 50 metre rifle 3 positions.
Zahra Nemati born 30 April 1985 is an Iranian Paralympic and Olympic archer. She originally competed in taekwondo before she was paralyzed in a car accident. At the 2012 Summer Paralympics she won two medals, an individual gold and team bronze. She has qualified to compete at both the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2016 Summer Paralympics.
Nejmeh Khedmati competed in shooting, originally from Iran.
Mahsa Javar born 12 June 1994 is an Iranian competitive rower. At the Olympic qualifying events in April 2016 she came second to Huang Yi-ting. Following her qualification for the Olympics, she was one of nine Iranian female athletes.
Kimia Alizadeh Zenoozi is an Iranian Taekwondo athlete.
Leila Rajabi is a Naturalized Iranian shot putter of Belarusian origin. She acquired Iranian citizenship and converted to Islam after she married Iranian athlete Peiman Rajab.
Mona Shaito is a Lebanese-American fencer, who along with her brother Zain Shaito, Represented Lebanon in foil at the 2012 Olympic Games held in London.
Houyele Ba born July 17, 1992 is a Mauritanian middle-distance runner. She competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in the women’s 800 metres race.
Wadha Al-Balushi born 30 November 1989 is an Omani sports shooter. She competed in the women’s 10 metre air pistol event at the 2016 Summer Olympics, where she finished 26th with a score of 379.
Minhal Sohail born 3 January 1995 is a Pakistani sports shooter. In 2016 she became the first female shooter to represent her country at the Olympics.
Sarah Attar is an American-born track and field athlete who competed at the 2012 Summer Olympics as one of the first two female Olympians representing Saudi Arabia.
Kariman Abuljadayel is a Saudi Arabian sprinter. She competed in the women’s 100 metres event at the 2016 Summer Olympics. She was the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in the event.
Lubna Al-Omair is a Saudi Arabian fencer. She competed in the women’s foil event at the 2016 Summer Olympics. She is from Khobar, Saudi Arabia. She is 1.52 metres tall, and weighs 45 kg.
Maryan Nuh Muse is a Somalian sprinter. She competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in the women’s 400 metres race.
Ayesha Shahriyar Mohammed S Albalooshi (born 23 January 1992) is an Emirati female weightlifter, competing in the 58 kg category and representing United Arab Emirates at international competitions.
Ibtihaj Muhammad is an American sabre fencer, and a member of the United States fencing team. She is best known for being the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Olympics.