Last month, an extensive debate about how religious dress codes can impact the participation of women in competitive sports was fueled by at least three distinct current events.
In one case, the female weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah was initially barred from the US championships, because she wanted to compete in clothing that would cover her elbows and knees. She had wanted to wear such clothing in accordance with her interpretation of Islamic rules of modesty for women. Officials were concerned that such clothing would obscure the view of the judges to assess whether she had achieved a proper “lock” of the elbows and knees, which is essential for a weight-lifting competition. Subsequently, Kulsoom Abdullah proposed to wear a tightfitting unitard under the compulsory competition costume, which would allow the judges to assess whether her elbows and knees were properly locked while lifting weights. The International Weightlifting Federation agreed to this compromise and Kulsoom Abdullah then registered for the US Championships.
In a separate situation, officials also denied the request of Na’ama Shafir, an Orthodox Jew, to wear an additional T-shirt under her basketball uniform for the Israeli women’s basketball team. By requesting as much, she sought to comply with Orthodox Jewish rules of modesty for women. The international basketball association FIBA pointed out that its rules require “uniformity” of the dress code of all players on a team, and that by wearing an additional T-shirt to cover her arms, her uniform would be different from that of other players. Following multiple official complaints and protests, FIBA and Shafir then negotiated a compromise that would allow Shafir to participate while wearing additional skin-colored sleeves under her jersey. This enabled her to abide by Orthodox Jewish rules of modesty and still preserve the spirit of the FIBA regulations.
The case that garnered most of the media attention involved the Iranian women’s soccer team. The women were not allowed to play a qualifying match for the 2012 Olympics because of a dress code ruling made by officials of FIFA, the international soccer association. FIFA had previously permitted Muslim women soccer players to use hair caps as a compromise that allowed women to comply with Muslim requirements for covering their hair. However, the Iranian soccer team appeared in a full body tracksuit uniform that not only covered their hair with a cap but also covered their neck and ears. According to a FIFA official, the Iranian delegation had previously signaled understanding of the FIFA rule, but apparently chose to violate it. There was significant outrage following the decision by FIFA. Many commentators saw the FIFA ruling as an infringement on the religious freedom of Muslim women by an international secular organization and as a punitive decision that would set back the progress of Muslim female athletes. However, as pointed out by the human rights activist Dokhi Fassihian, it is difficult to invoke personal religious freedom in the case of Iran, as the Iranian government mandates a certain religious dress-code for all women. The reasons cited by FIFA are somewhat confusing. The officials have referred to concerns about the safety of the women playing soccer in tight headscarves that also cover the neck (hijab) and may cause choking injuries. But officials have also pointed out that, according to FIFA regulations, “Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits”]. It is not clear that if head-coverings for women are indeed seen as a religious or political symbol, why FIFA had previously permitted female Muslim soccer players to wear the caps. Furthermore, the fact that the head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, has previously made misogynist comments about how women soccer players need to wear tighter shorts, also raises questions about the true motivations behind the FIFA decision.
The question raised by FIFA of whether the hijab constitutes a religious and political symbol, and thus violates the FIFA dress code, fits into the broader debate regarding the role of hijab in the Muslim world. One commonly held view is that wearing the hijab is simply one aspect of practicing the Muslim faith and thus not really a “symbol”. However, Leila Ahmed, a renowned professor at the Harvard Divinity School, has recently published a book entitled “A quiet revolution: The veil’s resurgence, from the Middle East to America”, in which she examines the symbolic nature of the hijab. She finds a surprising rise in the popularity of the hijab throughout the world. Many Muslim women choose to wear it with a sense of pride and as a symbol of their Muslim identity. Leila Ahmed also links the resurgence of hijab to Islamic activism and suggests that it symbolizes a conservative form of Muslim feminism . Leila Ahmed’s studies contradict the common stereotype that Muslim women are often forced to wear headscarves, but it does give credence to the FIFA concern that the hijab can serve as a symbol. The prominent Islamic feminist scholar, Amina Wadud, has also commented on the excessive symbolic meaning that has been attached to the hijab in our contemporary society. Her book “Inside the gender Jihad: Women’s reform in Islam” refers to the fact how wearing the hijab gives Muslim women legitimacy in the eyes of the Muslim community and allows them to speak their voice, even though, in her opinion, it is not a mandatory aspect of the Muslim faith .
To many secular observers, the discussion about the dress code and headscarves for women participating in professional sports may seem like an odd obsession. Even though sports teams in North America and Europe are gender segregated (i.e. soccer teams are usually all-female or all-male), amateur and professional sports events and activities often take place in front of a mixed audience. Sports activities involve some combination of enjoyable and healthy physical activity, team spirit, and competition. The dress code, outward appearance, modesty or immodesty of the female athletes is usually a non-issue at sports activities and events. Members of the audience do not primarily attend the events to ogle women for their appearance; instead, they participate to cheer on their favorite teams and athletes. If anything, the clothing of the athletes is supposed to be guided by the sports activity itself, i.e., clothing that provides the greatest safety, comfort, uniformity within a team and a competitive edge for the participants. Tight headscarves and full body tracksuits may seem counter-productive during heavy physical exertion. However, secular observers may not always understand that for many Muslim women, the dress code and hijab have taken on a tremendous religious significance. For some Muslim women, wearing hijab has become a core aspect of their faith and how they define themselves, which is why Amina Wadud refers to hijab as de facto “sixth pillar” . For Muslim women who feel that wearing the hijab and abiding by a certain dress code is mandatory according to their faith, absolute bans on hijab and other dress restrictions by sports organizations could strongly deter them from participating in competitive sports.
Looking forward, it is apparent that religious communities and secular sports organizations will need to continue to work on compromises that ensure maximum female participation in sports, both on the amateur and professional level. When countries like Iran mandate a certain religious dress code for all women, it may be very difficult for an international sports organization to modify its dress code rules for participants. After all, it is impossible to determine whether these athletes are being coerced into wearing a certain dress by their governments or whether it is truly a matter of a personal religious choice. On the other hand, the compromises reached by Kulsoom Abdullah and Na’ama Shafir with the IWF and FIBA show that sports organizations are in fact willing to compromise with individuals, perhaps because in these cases it was apparent that these women were choosing to wear a certain dress and there was no apparent coercion or manipulation by a government. These cases also highlight that women of different faiths may face similar challenges and find opportunities to work together when negotiating with international sports organizations.
1. Ahmed, L., A quiet revolution : the veil’s resurgence, from the Middle East to America. 2011, New Haven: Yale University Press. viii, 352 p.
2. Wadud, A., Inside the gender Jihad : women’s reform in Islam. 2006, Oxford: Oneworld. xvii, 286 p.
Jalees Rehman, MD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Some of his articles on science, culture and religion can be found on his Huffington Post blog http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jalees-rehman or his public Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/jaleespage and he can be followed on Twitter: @jalees_rehman