“Olympics 2012: Year of the [Muslim] Woman ?”

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The Olympics 2012 has been named ‘Year of the Woman’. Within team GB there is much evidence of this. The likes of female athletes like Jessica Ennis, the women's team pursuit cyclists and the Hosking – Copeland rowing duo have bolstered Great Britain’s place on the medal table by grabbing gold medals.

The accolade of ‘Year of the Woman’ has been earned because for the first time in Olympic history women will be represented in all 205 of the participant national teams, and make up 45% of the total athletes. This has been made possible since Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar decided this year to send female athletes.

Jacques Rogge, International Olympic Committee President, said at the Olympic opening ceremony – an event closely watched by more than one billion people around the world:

This is a major boost for gender equality

He claimed earlier this year:

It’s a human right. Women have the right to practice sport, they want to practice, they love sport, and they are attracted to sport. And we must make sure that barriers are broken down

Consider then the case of Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, the female judo competitor from Saudi Arabia. The 16 year-old was given a special invitation by the International Olympic Committee to compete in the over-78kg category under the Olympic charter, which bans gender discrimination.

She was told last week by the International Judo Federation that she would not be allowed to wear her hijab, because of safety concerns. Saudi Arabia has only allowed its women to compete on the condition that they are at all times dressed in suitable clothing that complies with Sharia (religious law).

There are people who will feel unsympathetic towards females who subscribe to Sharia, because of the misconstrued assumption that such religious norms are forced upon girls. This is not always the case. There are Muslim women who have chosen to follow such customs and want to remain covered up.

In this case sports clothing has become a barrier for them to compete. The Egyptian pentathlete Aya Medany has previously confessed to not competing in the Olympics because female swimmers have to wear suits that leave their necks, arms and legs exposed. There are, undoubtedly, many more who would share her sentiments.

Depending on how the international community wants to present itself (democratic, tolerant), it must find ways to accommodate such expressions of religion. Some have already started this process – and ended up with solutions such as the ResportOn ‘Hijood’, which is a hoodie attached to a t-shirt made from sports fabric. It was created by Elham Seyed Javad for female Muslim athletes who want to keep their hair covered. She set about designing such a piece after learning of five Muslim girls being banned from a tae kwon do tournament in Montreal because of the health and safety question their hijabs posed.

One prominent wearer of such an item of clothing is the 28 year old athlete from Bahrain, Roqaya Al Gassra. She won the women’s 200m final at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, making her the first Bahraini-born athlete to win a major international athletics gold medal, and has been the first ever to wear such a piece at the 2004 Olympics. Her sports hijab was made out of a tight-fitting material which completely covered her head, arms and legs. She claimed:

It’s great to finally have a high performance outfit that allows me to combine my need for modesty with a design made from breathable, moisture-controlled fabric…I hope that my wearing the hijood sports top will inspire other women to see that modesty or religious beliefs don’t have to be a barrier to participating in competitive sports.

Shahrkhani ended up fighting against Puerto Rico’s Mojica Melissa last week wearing a fitted black cap instead. Afterwards she said:

Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women's participation. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

This is an example of a woman willing to compromise for the sake of promoting the greater good of increased participation of women in public life. However, the power of hijab-wearing athletes in order to inspire the next generation of Muslim females to come forward in sport should not be underestimated. Dr Emma Tarlo, author of Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, has said:

If you are sporty it's good to see people you can relate to, especially if sport has not been emphasised in your community. If you see sports people who share your values it can be a positive message.

2012 will be the first year to showcase the talents of the Muslim female athletes from the participating countries, where this was not the case before, in many ways this is the year of the Muslim woman.

Parmila Kumari

Archived Comments

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London Games are pride of UK

The London Games have certainly done a remarkable job pushing the boundaries in terms of gender equality and even race equality as showcased by the Opening ceremony.

I also read about the Turkish Cypriot athlete, another political first. So, apart from the fantastic loot of medals GB has won - there is also a lot to be proud of.

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