Customs around clothing can present some challenges for Muslim women who wish to participate in sports. Religious expectations prefer women be more modest in their clothing, such as covering their body except the face and hands—hence many women practice ‘hijab’, which means ‘to cover’ in Arabic. The amount of skin covered depends on the depth of faith and the culture of various countries, and is most notably expressed through head wear: some Muslim women leave only their eyes exposed, others do not wear a headscarf at all.
The covering of the legs, arms, and head has made it challenging for some Muslim women to find suitable clothes to comfortably exercise and play sports in. To overcome this obstacle, women sometimes only play sports with, and in front of, other women—so that they can remove their hijab. This gender segregation is often exacerbated by the belief by some that women should not engage in heavy physical activity in front of men—as such bodily movements can be interpreted as sexual. Combined, these two aspects have made it difficult for women to play sports competitively, and in some Muslim nations, participation remains incredibly low.
Even if women manage to overcome these hurdles at home, they continue to face challenges internationally. Some sports events, such as the Olympics, banned headscarves because of safety concerns that it could strangle the individual wearing it, or cause others to slip over if it came off. It is only in very recent years that these regulations have begun to change.
Even though headscarves are now permitted at most major international tournaments there is a further obstacle: uniforms are often sexualised for women competitors. Gymnasts and figure skaters wear figure-fitting spandex; beach volleyball players wear bikinis; and tennis players wear barely-there mini skirts. Muslim women often have to adjust their uniforms to respect clothing norms while not compromising their religious values.
Despite these challenges, many women from Muslim nations have persevered.
Zahra Lari from the United Arab Emirates is the first woman in history to compete in figure skating in hijab. During her first competition in 2012, the judges deducted a point for an ‘outfit violation’ because of her headscarf. She has since successfully campaigned for the rules to be amended. To respect her family’s traditions, she does not wear see-through fabrics, but opaque cloth and thick leggings. She is a two-time Emirati national champion and hopes to become the first Emirati athlete to represent the United Arab Emirates in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Sara Ahmed won bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio after lifting a combined weight of 255 kg. She is the first woman weightlifter from the Arab world to stand on an Olympic podium, and the first woman from Egypt to win an Olympic medal in any discipline.
There are many other athletes in hijab competing at a professional level—explore the map to learn about a few of them.
Many of these athletes compete in traditional hijab, which is not ideal. As champion fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad explained: “when the material is wet, it gets really heavy and stiff…it would completely obstruct my hearing.” This led to her being carded numerous times for false starts. She is not the only athlete who has faced issues, and Nike looked to solve this problem: after working with Muslim athletes, including Ibtihaj Muhammad, the Nike Pro Hijab was released globally in 2017. Made of breathable fabrics, it aims to help current athletes, and aspiring athletes, engage in sports more comfortably.
French sports retailer Decathlon also attempted to sell a sports hijab but abandoned plans following complaints—and even threats—from the public. Add Islamophobia to the plethora of challenges Muslim women have to contend with.
There are many who view the hijab as a symbol of oppression. But the hijab has liberated women by giving them access to public spaces, including mix-gender settings—and international athletic competitions. Countries, athletic organisations, and fashion retailers must continue to show Muslim women that they do not need to chose between faith and sports.
With Muslims representing 24 percent of the world’s population, the unlocked athletic potential is huge.