In an bid to encourage more Muslim women to take part in sports London’s Brunel University announced the launch of their very own sports hijab in February. But does wearing the hijab restrict women and girls from taking part in sports? Ten years ago I would have said ‘yes’, but the recent emergence of Muslim women taking the sporting world by storm (winning Olympic medals nonetheless) has meant that seeing the hijab in a stadium, or even the ring, is quickly becoming the norm.
In 2016, Muslim-born Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first hijabi athlete to represent the USA for fencing at the Rio Olympics and went on to win a bronze medal. Not only did Muhammad make history, she also defied the Western stereotype of the “oppressed Muslim woman” at a time when Donald Trump was using Islamophobia to push his own presidential agenda.
Muhammad’s bronze medal win was even more significant because it proved something that the right-wing media outlets didn’t want us to know – Muslim women CAN jump, quite high in fact.
You could even argue that Muhammad’s groundbreaking win was a catalyst for what followed. Nike spotted a gap in the market and released a sport friendly hijab for Muslim women. Mattel also capitalised on this new trend by releasing their first ever hijab-clad Barbie, modelled after Muhammad herself.
Read also: A Barbie doll encountered Islamophobia and people aren’t happy
At the age of 13, Muhammad began fencing as it was one of the only sports that was hijab-friendly at the time. Back then, Muslim women were not represented in sports. In a recent interview with Rolling Stones magazine Muhammad commented: “It’s always difficult when you don’t see someone excelling in something that you may have dreams or aspirations to participate in or excel at. It’s hard to see yourself in that space”.
In her memoir, Proud, Muhammad also writes about the challenges she faced and the racism and xenophobia she experienced while training and competing. Nevertheless she pushed through and paved the way for other young Muslim girls with aspirations of competing in international sports.
We still have a long way to go
Despite there being so much noise in the media about Muslim women in sport, statistics show that we still have a relatively long way to go.
The Sporting Equals Organisation states that only 26.1 percent of Asian women take part in the recommended levels of sport and physical activity (once a week) compared to 31.4 percent of white British women. Shockingly, another study by Sports England found that only 18 percent of Muslim women participate in regular sport, compared to 30 percent of the entire UK’s female population.
“Only 18% of Muslim women participate in regular sport, compared to 30% of the entire UK’s female population”
And although there are a plethora of Muslim athletes coming through, many sports still don’t cater to the specific needs of Muslim women and their dress code. For instance, the basketball governing body, FIBA, prohibits players from wearing the hijab for health and safety reasons.
The US weightlifting federation dress code is also designed in a way that makes it difficult for Muslim women to observe the hijab and compete. It states that athletes cannot wear long sleeves or long bottoms. However, Pakistani weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah, who was told she could not compete at the national level unless she wore a weightlifting singlet, released a press release to overturn the rules.
Abdullah said: “I like to think that sports federations never considered women who might wear hijab and play the respective sport at the same time.
“It seems it is from fear or dislike of what they think that it represents (such as all of the negative stereotypes) or that it is going to take over the world, so to speak.”
Some countries have also banned the hijab from being worn in the boxing ring. In fact, 16-year-old Amaiya Zafar was disqualified for defying ‘safety rules’ at the Sugar Bert Boxing National Championship. The controversy led to the ban on wearing religious headgear in the US being lifted a year later, but until international rules also change, Zafar will not be able to compete on a global scale, including the the Olympics.
“I was told I couldn’t compete in my hijab, even though it gave me no competitive advantages” explains Zafar.
“Everyone supported my dreams because they knew that if I advocate and opened the door for myself, I would also be opening the door for millions of women in the boxing world, while honouring my relationship with God through what I wear. Women were not allowed to box in the United States until 1996 or compete in the Olympics until 2012 so I take my responsibility to advocate for equality in the sport very seriously.
“The International Boxing Association (AIBA) needs to understand that women are here to stay and that it is an honor to open the door for women of all faiths and nationalities to compete” adds Zafar. “Women like me, are being held back from achieving our full competitive potential because of the unequal treatment we receive at the hands of organisations like the AIBA.”
“Everyone supported my dreams because they knew that if I advocate and opened the door for myself, I would also be opening the door for millions of women in the boxing world, while honouring my relationship with God through what I wear”
Speaking about her future goals, Zafar added: “It’s always been my dream to compete in the Olympics and I’m confident that, even though they kept me away from 2020 Olympics, they’ll change the rules so I can compete in the 2024 Olympics.”
German boxing champion Zeina Nassar also successfully managed to change the the boxing rules in her home country and is now fighting to see this change on an international level.
“My dream is to change international boxing rules to allow women of all backgrounds to fight,” she said. “And you have to fight to make changes in society.”
Nassar had to work twice as hard as other boxers to prove herself in the ring: “I don’t want to be reduced to my looks, or my hijab. It really doesn’t matter what religion I practice. In the end what matters to me is my sport.”
Competing against adversity
Many Muslim athletes have faced some sort of adversity in their journey to becoming a professional competitor, but this couldn’t be truer for those who are living as refugees.
Amid the chaos of the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, there is a man who is determined to teach his daughters about sport. Rohingya refugee Mohammad Selim has been coaching his daughter, Nasima Akter, on Taekwondo.
Before fleeing from genocide in Myanmar, Rohingya, 18 months ago, Selim was a local taekwondo champion. Now, he hopes his daughter can follow in his footsteps.
In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, he said: “Our society is conservative and we prefer covering our women but in taekwondo you are covered so people can’t question a girl participating. We practice inside to not get criticised but many people regret they cannot teach their daughters.”
Hijab bans aren’t the answer
While we celebrate the many wins and overturned bans that Muslim women have fought hard for, there are still some people who feel that the hijab does not belong in the world of sport.
French feminist group, the International League for Women’s Rights, recently expressed concerns over Muslim women wearing the hijab and competing in the Paris 2024 Olympics. Their solution – overturn one ban by imposing another.
The group have called for a complete hijab ban at the 2024 Olympic games to allow women to compete without any religious ‘restrictions’. This comes after Annie Sugier posted a blog on the website that claimed Islamic countries weren’t allowing women to take part in sports that were incompatible with Islamic law.
“Banning the hijab to remove restrictions is oxymoronic” says Abdullah. “I am not sure what good it is going to do except reduce participation and inclusion.”
What is the future for Muslim women in sport?
By banning the hijab from international sporting events there is a high risk that we will completely alienate Muslim women from competing in sports.
“We need more encouragement and role models” comments Abdullah. “It shouldn’t have to be something that has to be pioneered or have barriers broken.”
We want to change the narrative of Muslim women by introducing them into the sports industry and promoting equal opportunities
Independent charities such as the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation (MWSF) are also working hard to make sports more accessible to Muslim women. Their aim is to increase the involvement of Muslim women and girls in sport without compromising their religious or cultural values.
Trustee Ebba Qureshi says: “The aim is to help social and physical development of Muslim women. We want to change the narrative of Muslim women by introducing them into the sports industry and promoting equal opportunities.”
But it seems that there’s still a long way to go.
“Young girls are still not supported or encouraged at home to join in sports” says Qureshi. “It’s still seen as a ‘boys’ game. There’s also not enough push from schools to encourage parents to sign their daughters up to join a sport at school.”
So what’s the future for Muslim women in sport? Qureshi recommends starting with the home.
“We need lots more support from home and more incentives for women to join coaching, playing or just engaging in a sport. Schools should also promote more girl tournaments with other schools and clubs.
Finally we need to advocate for more role models to come forward and promote their journey and what sport has meant for them, highlight the life skills and the social and mental development in their wellbeing.”
Zafar also agrees that seeing other Muslim take part in sport can encourage girls to get involved: “It’s my hope that sharing my story will not only help young girls get involved in boxing, but also that it will encourage the adults in their lives to inspire them to try new things. Without the support I received from my parents and coaches I wouldn’t be where I am today.”