Imagine a woman draped in a traditional Muslim headscarf and dress. What do you presume exists behind that sanctimonious shield of modesty? Do you envision a sports bra beneath those folds? How about chiseled abs and a competitive sneer? Although it is entirely possible that an athlete exists in the hijab, rarely does she exist in our imagination. Many Americans have been conditioned by media, politics, and prejudice to associate women of Islam with notions of oppression and indignity. This pity is both disempowering and largely misdirected.
It can be argued that the Islamic religion is no more misogynistic than much of the Christianity practiced around the world. Fanatical fundamentalism, like that of the notorious Taliban, is a radical deviation from the Islam accepted by much of the world where women are celebrated for their strength, intelligence, and even athleticism. The Koran actually encourages physical activity among women—it is the interpretation and extremity of application of the Prophet’s words that dictate the practical applications of Islam relative to women. For example, not all Muslim women follow the same dress code. Some interpretations of Islam mandate that not even a woman’s face be revealed, while others have little or no clothing restrictions. Now, more than ever, we must raise our gaze and open our understanding of women’s sports to include the diverse experiences of our Muslim sisters.
As our war tore through Afghanistan this fall, thousands of women gathered in Tehran, Iran, for the third Muslim Women’s Games (formerly the Islamic Countries’ Women’s Games). This event opened the door of international athletic competition to millions of Muslim women who wear the hijab by addressing one of the most outstanding dilemmas these Muslim women face in athletics: how do elite female athletes compete in athletic attire when their interpretation of the Koran mandates refraining from revealing the beauty of their bodies to men? The answer: create a female-exclusive environment in which to play. The Muslim Women’s Games were only open to men and photographic media during the opening ceremonies when women were covered. Once the games began, males were prohibited from attending, and women were able to compete in volleyball, handball, basketball and even swimming in performance clothing. Although the stadiums with seating capacities of 15,000 were practically empty, the energetic thrill of this athletic opportunity filled each venue. Seven hundred and fifty-three competitors enjoyed unprecedented benefits of a women-only sporting environment including no gender inequity and an all-female support staff—from coaches to trainers, referees and even journalists. The women taking part in the Muslim Women’s Games were not pleading to play with the boys—they were creating a sports sphere to call their own.
The Muslim Women’s Games provided a solid foundation for growth and progress. A woman who wears the hijab now has an exclusive international forum in which to compete. Unfortunately, her plight becomes much more complicated when considering the possibility of her participating in the Olympic Games. Muslim women have historically competed in the Olympic Games both in and out of the hijab and have experienced varying degrees of acceptance from their homelands. In the 1992 Olympic Games, Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka won the 1500 meters in men’s shorts. Instead of celebrating the first Algerian to accomplish such a feat, fundamentalists denounced her victory for “running with naked legs in front of thousands of men.” Boulmerka was forced into exile following the Olympic Games because of death threats from her fellow countrymen. Iranian women, on the other hand, chose to compete in the hijab at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in canoe/kayak and shooting. They were supported at home, regardless of the fact that the Iranian government has been critical of the international athletic environment. According to Dr. Ghafouri Fard, the head of the Physical Education Organization of Iran, the leaders of world sport have created a cruel imposition whereby Muslim women are “deprived of taking part in World and Olympic events due to having their Islamic cover.” (Salam Iran, November 28, 2001) He goes on to criticize the I.O.C. for the cruel violation of human rights to exclude these women from the world’s athletic stage.
The claim that Muslim women are in any way excluded from competing at the Olympic Games is fiercely opposed by Anita Defrantz, U.S. representative to the I.O.C. She counters this notion by saying that the I.O.C. does not assume the responsibility of dictating what can and cannot be worn during the Games. Uniform regulations are left up to each national federation. In response to these accusations, Defrantz says, “It’s nonsense. There is no rule that would prohibit wearing the hijab in the Olympic Games. No person is barred from the Olympic Games because of their faith—and that includes Americans.” Perhaps an explanation for the absence of a large number of hijab-wearing women at the Olympic Games has to do with issues of practicality, interest, or homeland athletic opportunities.
Why then, if Muslim women are indeed playing sports internationally, do Americans not have so much as a misunderstanding, but rather a missing understanding of their participation? An answer might be this: Americans create understanding through the thousands of visual images they encounter everyday, and pictures are largely responsible for shaping our view of sports. We are limited to a very narrow, or even absent, view of Muslim women athletes. According to Faezeh Hashemi, hijab-wearing Muslim women typically cannot be visually represented playing sports in performance clothing and remain in synch with the mandates of Islam. She claims that this is no excuse for Iranian and foreign press to avoid half the Muslim population.
Radio, television, print, and Internet publications could have a dramatic effect on the growth of women’s sports in predominantly Muslim countries. However, this is a challenging task that calls for creative verbal imagery and a dedicated media. Ambitious women’s sports coverage remains a virtual oxymoron in the United States where women have been competing for well over a century. If we struggle for equitable media coverage of women’s sports, imagine how the scenario is exacerbated in places where women’s sports are in earlier stages of development.
In consideration of the existence and advancement of women’s sports in Muslim countries, let’s ask ourselves one question: what if a prodigal Mia Hamm is growing up in Iran today? Does she know that the mandates of her dress code need not limit the strength and spirit of the body beneath the hijab? Will she have the opportunity and encouragement to develop her dynamic, natural talent? Will she grab a heroine’s inspiration from a sound bite she hears on public radio and dream one day of representing her country on an international sport stage? How can we make sure that she does?
The Women’s Sports Foundation exists as the center of belief in the power of play in girls and women’s lives. We believe that the benefits derived from sport are keys to universal notions of good health, confidence, success, and overall happiness. To promote truly global growth of female athleticism, we must sow and nurture the seeds of recognition, empowerment, and equality in Muslim countries as we do at home. It wasn’t long ago that American female cyclists wore petticoats and tennis players donned corsets. What matters is not what an athlete wears to play but the fact that she participates and takes from the sporting experience. We have struggled for decades to provide women with equal opportunity in sport and have overcome both the prejudices and extremist discrimination that keep Muslim women’s sports unexposed and underdeveloped today. For the sake of unity and humanity, it’s time to unveil the myths and truly celebrate the glorious participation of all women in sports.
By Sarah J. Murray
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