Muslim women, hijabs, and sports

Religious expression on the field becoming a needed topic of conversation. Pixabay

The need for discussion

On the weekend of Oct.19, Noor Alexandra Abukaram, a 16 year old Muslim high school student competed in her seventh cross country race of the season in Findlay, Ohio finished with a personal best of 22.22, a time good enough to advance to regional competition. However, because Abukaram wore her hijab while racing, without having it approved beforehand, which goes against the OHSSA’s regulation that all religious headwear (a category hijabs fall into) must be approved before it can be worn during an athletic competition or event, she was disqualified. In response to the public outrage and anger expressed by Noor, her family members, and coach, the OHSSA agreed to allow Noor to compete at cross country regionals and has also announced, without providing any specifics, that the group is considering modifying its current regulations regarding religious headwear. Despite some resolution for Noor, this occurrence highlights the frequent challenges, prejudice and discrimination that many female Muslim athletes experience.

In today’s society, many individuals perceive the hijab as an oppressive clothing item and believe that therefore by extension, Muslim women who wear one, must also be oppressed. However, for Muslims this perception of the hijab is extremely inaccurate.

As Arwa Shamiss, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab and U of R rugby team member explained, while the media has manipulated the hijab to “portray women as submissive, thoughtless individuals, who are controlled by men of the Islamic faith,” this is not the actual reality. The Hijab “encompasses the principle of modesty and not only [includes] a piece of cloth worn around the head, [but also] the behaviour of an individual.” Shamiss also elaborated on how there is a major “misconception . . . that [the hijab has been] thrust upon women of the Islamic faith, [when in fact this] principle applies to both males and females of the Muslim faith. Its only oppressive element is how it has been misconstrued by western societies and the media . . . as a way to force western ideals onto Muslim women, under the false pretense of freedom.”

A similar concept was also expressed by Zuna Iftikhar, VP of social affairs for the U of R Muslim Student Association, who explained how the hijab symbolizes female empowerment. In literal translation, the hijab “means to cover, or have a barrier.” It is a clothing item that “is a very important part of Islam and . . . a Muslim woman’s identity.”  Hijabs are not about making “women inferior to men, [but rather showing] women in a world of men that they are respected.” Wearing a hijab is considered by Muslim women as a way to “save them from social evils, like lust and provide them (with) a sense of security.”

Iftikhar also expressed how it is bittersweet that while “some people are curious and want to know what [the hijab] is all about. . . the world doesn’t really know, [or understand] the true significance of the hijab.”

Unfortunately, these ignorant views result in regulations, prohibitions, prejudice and underrepresentation, which provide various challenges and difficulties for many professional and recreational female Muslim athletes.

Firstly, some sports have regulations and even prohibitions against religious headwear during athletic competition, creating a major obstacle for many Muslim women to actually participate in the sports. In some cases, these types of prohibitions force Muslim women to choose between the sports they love and are good at, or abandoning their religion, by removing something that contains significant value.

Secondly, according to Iftikhar, Muslim women are frequently excluded from participating in sports based on perceived capabilities.

“For sports you really need to see someone compete to know if they’re capable or not, and sometimes that’s where Muslim woman who choose to wear a hijab lack the chance. There are a lot of talented people out there who would do great if they (were competing), but sometimes it’s the discrimination and stereotypes holding them back.”

Often Muslim women are left out and considered incapable based on the assumption that because they are wearing a hijab, they “ must be an immigrant, or a refugee [and as a result, must not] know how to play the sport.”

Additionally, as Shamiss mentioned, “many [Muslim] women in sports . . . wear a head covering, [but] because of the limited views of the media, they aren’t covered as much as male athletes, or popular non-Muslim female athletes.” While this reality has a lot to do with the existing negative perception of the hijabs within society, it also has to with the massive sexualization of women that exists in today’s sports culture. “It is difficult for female athletes to be taken seriously because the focus is on their appearance and their athleticism is overlooked, while males [on the other hand] are applauded for their athleticism and given no attention to their appearances.” This situation is even worse for Muslim female athletes. “When Muslim women [wearing a hijab] are represented in sports,” the focus is on [their] head covering and “their athletic capabilities are overlooked.”

Despite all of this negativity, prejudice, challenges and current underrepresentation and misrepresentation of female Muslim athletes, both Shamiss and Iftikhar believe that the situation can be improved. Shamiss stated that “female athletes [need to be given] the same consideration as male athletes and Ifikar suggested that “there needs to be [more] awareness and education [regarding] the hijab. More Muslim women [need] to speak about what the hijab really is [and] what it means to them.”

Another major step towards improvement is evident by Nike’s release of the Pro-Sports Hijab, a product which Iftikar has suggested is “a step in the right direction because it shows [the world] that [Muslim women who wear hijabs] are not any different . . .  and can do whatever anyone else without [a] hijab can do, [just] as well.”

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