For the past few weeks, my whole family has gathered in our living room in the evenings to watch the Olympics. It has been a family tradition for the past few Olympics, and usually swimming, women’s gymnastics, diving and track are the favorite events. “Phelps is just so amazing,” everyone gushes. My teenage girls can’t get enough of Tom Daley and David Boudia. And yes, Usain Bolt has been electrifying all of us for the last decade.
Fencing had never been an attraction, after all, the women’s sabre event wasn’t even on the Olympics schedule until the 2004 Athens games, but there was something different about this Olympics. And that something was Ibtihaj Muhammad. She had been popping up in everybody’s Facebook newsfeeds weeks before the Olympics even began, celebrated as the first “hijab” wearing Muslim American to compete. She hadn’t won an individual medal in international competition since 2010, and while she ranked #7 in the world coming in, Ibtihaj certainly was not a medal favorite. But that didn’t matter. And it shouldn’t matter, because qualifying for and competing in the Olympics is a big deal. Heck, even NBC was all over this.
You have to wonder though, would this athlete have garnered this level of attention if she hadn’t worn a hijab? When I noticed news story after news story primarily focusing on her “hijab,” I cringed a little. I suspected that the Muslim community cared more about the appearance and dress of this young woman than the fact that a Muslim female was competing in the Olympics? What nagged at me even more however was the way in which the media framed the hijab; when the “Washington Post” ran an article on Ibtihaj, it specifically mentioned the hijab as a “tenet of her faith.” It seems the Muslim American community has allowed the interpretation that the hijab is a core and defining principle of our religion to permeate to the mainstream media.
Still, I let go of my annoyance, reassuring myself that if Ibtihaj was the only Muslim American female athlete in the Olympics, how could our community not be expected to label her a hero? The fact that she donned the hijab was ancillary. I didn’t have any definitive proof that Muslim Americans were pouring attention and praise onto her because she was a “hijabi athlete.” Right?
Here came track and field time. Dalilah Muhammad gave the performance of a lifetime and won gold in the women’s 400 meters hurdles. The first American woman to ever win this event at any Olympic games. Why had we not heard of her before this race? She was a 4-time All-American athlete at the University of Southern California. She won the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. Yet the silence leading up to the Olympics, even through the 400-meter hurdles final, was deafening.
Here was the proof I had hoped I wouldn’t discover—Dalilah was the evidence that Muslim Americans rooted for a hijabi athlete and ignored the one who didn’t don the headscarf. Interestingly enough, the name “Dalilah” itself means evidence. The message was loud and clear. Only after Dalilah won the gold medal did the public begin to heap praise on her. I noticed that when people finally did acknowledge her on social media platforms, they took care to post only the photo of Dalilah in which she stands draped in the American flag, her exposed skin covered by its fabric.
Dalilah identifies herself as an observant Muslim, but it seems this was not enough for us. This idea that an “ideal Muslim woman” must cover her body and hair remains palpably dominant. It is a misplaced idea, and one that is patently unfair to Muslim women who do not dress conservatively, because it presumes to know a person’s heart, to judge her nearness to God by her exterior.
Not only did the warm reception of Ibtihaj as compared to the aloof one of Dalilah belie our assumption that a woman’s lack of hijab automatically excludes her from the category of a practicing, pious Muslim, it also revealed another problem in our community—that we have elevated hijab to the point where we now see it as a defining principle of Islam. The majority of scholars agree that hijab is obligatory for a Muslim woman—although we do not have complete consensus on the matter as some scholars believe the headscarf is recommended, not obligatory–but you certainly cannot make the argument that this is a pillar of faith. That those who do not wear hijab sit outside the realm of Islam.
So when Dalilah identifies herself as a Muslim woman, we ought to respect and celebrate her as one. And when Ibtihaj calls herself a proud Muslim, we ought to respect and cheer her as one. Both women deserve equal support rather than the former being made to feel like a second-class Muslim because of her attire. Interestingly enough, when I expressed this idea on Facebook, eighteen of the twenty-three Muslim women who “liked” the post do not wear hijab. It seems the reticence surrounding Dalilah resonated with women who leave their hair uncovered–they noticed the disparity in the public’s response and felt empathetic towards Dalilah.
To make matters worse, the disparity in treatment is not limited to Dalilah and Ibtihaj; it extends to Muslim women as compared to Muslim men. If you want to see sexism at work, you only have to find two Muslim American male athletes competing in the Olympics. The one who does not sport a beard and shorts that extend below his knees will receive the same coverage and support as the one who does.
Muslim women all over the globe are leading the charge in every field imaginable, so it seems pathetic that we have reduced them to a piece of cloth on their head and are deciding their dedication to God based on this cloth. Dr. Sarah Kureshi, for example, is an accomplished athlete who represented the United States in international competitions, a human rights activist who advocates passionately to eradicate violence against women, and an accomplished physician and a professor at Georgetown University. She doesn’t wear the hijab, and yet, she is a standard of excellence that my daughters aspire to. It only makes sense.
Or at least it should. There should be no difference between her and Ibtihaj Muhammad. There should be no difference between Ibtihaj and Dalilah Muhammad. And that’s when we as a community would have arrived.
Mustafa Saied is the Founder and Director of the Foundation for American Institutional Reform (FAIR). He is a long-time activist, a serial entrepreneur, and a father of five.” He is most well known as the husband of Sadaf Saied, the President of the Muslim Women’s Organization.