A recent photo of two female volleyball players went viral last week. Doaa Elghobashy and Kira Walkenhorst were both pictured wearing two very different types of sportswear- a full body suit with a hijab, and a bikini. And whilst the topic of conversation should have been on their sporting performances, it inevitably became about what these women were wearing.
Volleyball is often criticised for being an ‘over-sexualised’ sport. Bikinis are often worn by many of the athletes, which strangely causes a testosterone rush for the men who choose to place focus on the athlete’s bodies instead of on the sport itself. It is no surprise that when an athlete who chooses to play the sport fully dressed causes these perverse misogynists to froth at the mouth. They feel that they are missing out on a ‘good view’.
Although their annoyance was hidden behind the usual nonsensical smokescreen of women ‘being forced’ and ‘their country forced them to wear that’, it is not the first time Muslim women’s clothing has become an Olympics hot topic. More and more Muslim women in hijab have entered the Olympics this year than ever before and many of them have been making the headlines. However, we often witness two types of responses when it comes to the issue of wearing the hijab during sporting tournaments. The first is those who outright choose not to accept it due to their Islamophobic and bigoted rhetoric claiming that the uniform was not a choice by the women themselves. The second is those who are choosing to ‘whitewash’ over the issue; they completely by ignore the prejudice that Muslim women have faced and still face by stating that ‘clothing doesn’t matter, it’s all about the sport’.
But the reality is that it is not and has never been about sport. Western media outlets have attached negative connotations to the hijab for a long period of time. These negative views have become so deeply ingrained within the minds of the public that when these women come out into the public sphere, it is difficult to comprehend the idea of a woman in hijab playing sport. It has become a space for women who don’t cover thus women with hijab are continuously excluded.
College basketball player, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, was denied the right to play by FIBA due to their ‘headgear’ policy. Despite the fact her hijab looked like a ponytail tied back, the reality was that her hijab ‘mattered’ to the FIBA. However, due to her unprivileged background and the senior members of FIBA being of higher social strata than her, it was their decision that took precedent and was therefore considered.
American fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, has also made headlines recently by being dubbed the ‘first hijabed woman to qualify for an American team.’ She is clearly an excellent fencer which is exactly she qualified and competed in the Olympics and yet the focus continues to remain on her clothing. Ibtihaj’s competing in a hijab is a massive confidence boost for Muslim women who want to enter sports as it demonstrates that it doesn’t hold women back from achieving their professional sporting goals. She has spoken about how her hijab matters to her because the fully covered fencing uniform was the reason she entered the sport. She demonstrates that hijab is a personal matter for herself, and that no one else should interfere with that by banning her from the sport she plays.
So how do we stop people from making a hijab ‘matter’ in sport, to making it only ‘matter’ for Muslim women? As women in hijab increasingly enter the public sphere, it is starting to matter less and less. However, we cannot expect the media to not be shocked and not comment on hijabs whenever one is in sight. In times of radical social change, fear, anxiety and shock is always to be expected. It is only after the change has happened and it becomes the norm that the media will stop commenting on it. Women in hijab are absolutely moving in the right direction with this; I personally am overwhelmed with joy at how many Muslim women are competing this year. There will come a point when the hijab will ‘matter’ but only to the women who wear it, and not to the white, upper-class, straight men running the media and the sports who also use an Islamophobic agenda to push these women out. When that time comes, we can finally focus on how many points Egypt scored against Germany.
Sana Abubaker is an English Literature and Journalism graduate from Cardiff University. She currently works as a freelance journalist and her work focuses on Islamic feminism, race, gender, LGBTQ rights and misogyny in wider society. When she’s not working she enjoys reading, going to the theatre, or attending Literature Festival/Poetry Slam events.