The Olympics, Women, and the Hijab
By Zoe Robbin
This summer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, of Maplewood, New Jersey, became the first Olympian to represent Team USA while wearing the hijab. Muhammad, the eighth ranked saber fencer, defeated Ukrainian fencer Olena Kravatska in the round of 32. She was finally defeated by Cecilia Berder of France in the round of 16. Muhammad, an African-American Muslim woman, is not only a powerful and strong athlete; she continues to be an advocate for Muslim women across the globe who face barriers towards athletic participation. As she rises to fame within the United States, Muhammad works to break down stereotypes in the United States surrounding Islam and Muslim women. Despite living in the United States for her entire life, Ibtihaj Muhammad received hateful comments, such one from a stranger in Times Square who asked if she was a “terrorist” trying to “blow something up.”
With appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a new clothing line with Louelle Shop, and countless articles documenting her success from The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic, Ibtihaj Muhammad has been celebrated by prominent American media outlets. Yet, as we write about and photograph and spotlight Muhammad’s hijab, we accordingly shift our attention away from the nuance and complexity of her identity as an esteemed athlete and public figure. Instead, the essence of her identity becomes the hijab; it becomes Islam.
Certainly, saluting a woman who continues to face rampant discrimination in the West due to her faith is a principled mission for any news outlet. However, this recognition has become what Rachel Shabi of Al Jazeera refers to as “Orientalist Awe.” The white male-dominated sports-casting industry of the West is amazed that Muslim women are physically able to compete while wearing a headscarf. With headlines about Ibtihaj Muhammad such as “Hijab and a Sword” from the BBC World, the Western media continues to dwell on this apparent contradiction. Should we expect headlines such as “Bathing Suit and a Pool,” or “Sneakers and a Track” from the BBC World in the future? The BBC is not impressed by Muhammad’s great athletic achievements. Rather, the BBC is impressed by the paradox wearing a hijab while playing sports seems to pose.
Ibtihaj Muhammad was certainly not the only Muslim woman spotlighted by this “Orientalist Awe.” In March of 2012, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) lifted its ban on more modest uniforms such as body suits or shorts, permitting Muslim Olympians, Doaa Elghobashy and Nada Meawad, of Egypt, their first opportunity to compete in the Games. Elghobashy wore a bodysuit and hijab while her partner, Meawad, wore a bodysuit without the hijab. The image of Elghobashy and Meawad’s match against German beach volleyball athletes, Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst, both clad in bikinis, went viral. The Times called the match a “culture clash,” the Daily Mail called it “a massive cultural divide” between “the cover-ups” and “the cover-nots,” and the Sun called the contrast “colossal.” The most notable headline came from the BBC Africa, which tweeted “Rio 2016: Bikini vs Burka,” despite the fact that Elgobashy was not, in fact, wearing a burka, but instead a hijab. Sometimes, the temptation of catchy alliteration distracts journalists from writing accurate headlines. Libyan-American writer Hend Amry responded beautifully on Twitter with a suggestion for a new caption to the iconic picture: “Athlete vs athlete.”
First and foremost, an athlete of any gender, sex, religion, or ability level should never be reduced to their clothing. For Muslim women who wear the hijab, media attention focused tirelessly on their clothing is harmful individually and socially. Media attention frequently associates the hijab with negative Islamic stereotypes, many times painting Islam as a barrier that women are forced to overcome in order to participate in sports, such as a Washington Post headline by Chuck Culpepper that states “Muslim female athletes find sport so essential they compete while covered.” In response to the hijab-obsession, Shireen Ahmed of the Daily Beast wrote a sharp article titled “Breaking News: Women in Hijab Play Sports.” Indeed, women from around the world have been playing sports while wearing the hijab. As Rachel Shabi writes, if you are trying to celebrate hijabi women in the Olympics, “maybe spotlighting the hijab each time you see an athlete wearing one isn’t the way to do it.”
Adam Shaw of Fox News calls the hijab a “symbol of the chains with which…backward beliefs still shackle women.” Despite the fact many of the Egyptian female athletes did not choose to cover their hair, Shaw seems only to be interested in taking advantage of the hijab to affirm his own ethnocentric narrative, his own definition of feminism, and his own interpretation of Islam. Women can define feminism, and Muslim women can define their own religious ideals. Women around the world are looking for male teammates in feminist activism; they are certainly not looking for men to lead the feminist movement.
Lastly, this article addresses Western media attention directed towards women who freely choose to wear the hijab: Muhammah, who has made numerous statements explaining why she decided to wear the hijab, and Elgobashy, who played alongside an Egyptian athlete with uncovered hair. However, in many parts of the world today, women face violent oppression and are not free to choose what they can and cannot wear. Many Muslim women, as Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa write in a Washington Post op-ed, choose not to wear the hijab to protest “the resurgence of political Islam” and the imposition of mandatory covering. This article seeks only to address the language surrounding Muslim athletes in the Olympics who were free to make their own decisions about covering.
Until 2012, the FIVB upheld a ban against any bikini bottom over 7 cm. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA), continues to uphold bans against wearing the hijab. While hijabi women do face many cultural barriers within male-dominated Middle Eastern societies, perhaps one of the primary reasons the Western media is unaccustomed to them has to do with pervious bans on headscarves from FIFA and IFVB, and bans that still exist today from the FIBA. If only women who dress in a Western fashion are able to participate in athletics, are we truly a culture promoting free choice among women?