Hijab is a good fit for Games

Muslim women are making history at the Olympics by proving that covering their head to compete with the world’s best is not a handicap but a sign of pride and strength in their identity.
Zahra Lari performs at the International Figure Skating Championship in Abu Dhabi last year. She says she feels proud when people ask her about her hijab. Silvia Razgova / The National
Zahra Lari performs at the International Figure Skating Championship in Abu Dhabi last year. She says she feels proud when people ask her about her hijab. Silvia Razgova / The National

Doaa El-Ghobashy and Nada Meawad of Egypt made their country’s Olympic Games debut in women’s beach volleyball this week, and they did it wearing modest uniforms – with El-Ghobashy in a hijab – in a sport dominated by bare skin.

Playing against and ultimately losing to a German duo in bikinis, the photographs capturing their historic match went viral – and with them, a vigorous debate.

“I have worn the hijab for 10 years,” Ms El-Ghobashy says after the game. “It doesn’t keep me away from the things I love to do, and beach volleyball is one of them.”

In addition to meeting international athletic standards and withstanding the pressures of world-class sport, elite Muslim and Arab female athletes have the added pressure that comes with what can be uninformed opinions on what they wear abroad – not to mention adhering to conservative cultural expectations at home.

Hassiba Boulmerka, an Algerian who won her country’s first Olympic gold medal in the 1,500 metres at the 1992 games in Barcelona, battled death threats from conservatives in her home country for competing in shorts.

Arab and Muslim women have been competing in sports for decades, often under the radar and reaching the Olympics because of their own self-determination. Their home countries tended to put their weight behind the men, who they believed would bring in the gold.

All that changed in 1984, when 22-year-old Nawal El Moutawakel became the first Muslim-Arab woman to win a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. It was a historic moment on two levels: the first time women were competing in the women’s 400 metre hurdles and the first gold won for Morocco.

The then-king of Morocco, King Hassan II, pledged her his full support and declared that all girls born on August 8, the date of her victory, would be named Nawal.

The impact of her win rippled across the region, with governments waking up to the untapped potential of their female athletes. She received letters from Arab, African and Muslim female athletes, who would write to her over the years as they broke their own barriers.

“Ladies with and without the veil told me I’d liberated them,” she said at the time.

The boost paid off. Ghada Shouaa, a heptathlete from Syria, won her country’s first gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Habiba Ghribi became the first Tunisian woman to win an Olympic gold in the 3000-metre steeplechase at London Olympics of 2012.

A new group of women athletes is making history this month, arriving from the most conservative countries in the region to compete in Rio, from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen and the UAE.

Many of them are competing in the hijab, which has pushed sports officials to rethink rules banning religious symbols at the games. Lifting of those bans has happened in a variety of ways as the landscape of competitors and competitions changes.

The International Volleyball Federation loosened up its beach volleyball uniform rules for the event prior to the London Olympics in 2012, allowing for more coverage, and made a last-minute decision to allow El-Ghobashy’s hijab at Rio after a request from the African Volleyball Confederation chairwoman Amr Elmany.

Ahead of the London Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had initially ruled against the International Judo Federation on the matter.

However, the IOC later relented, allowing the Saudi Judo athlete Wojdan Shaherkhani to wear the hijab.

Zahra Lari is aiming for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where she may make history on two fronts: as the first Emirati athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics and the first one to do so in a hijab.

“I feel proud when people ask me questions about the hijab and the UAE,” says the 21-year-old, who is also the first Emirati figure skater to compete internationally.

The UAE first applied to become a member of International Skating Union (ISU) in 2013.

“The issue of hijab came up and there was a bit of concern,” says Lari. “However, to get a clear understanding of the hijab, the ISU development head watched me skate and also met me to see clearly that this was safe and compliant to the skating safety standards. After this meeting and the great work of the UAE Ice Sports Federation, the UAE was given a provisional membership for two years, and now have become permanent members and participated in their first ISU congress and voting in Croatia this year.”

The skater says she has “been fortunate and honoured” to have competed internationally in Hungary, Slovakia, Korea, Italy, Iceland and the Netherlands. Training at home has been complemented by sessions at facilities in the US, Korea, Germany and Switzerland.

“In all of these countries I have been welcomed and treated with the utmost respect, and have been cheered on by them and their competing skaters and spectators,” she says.

In another ban on hijab under debate, the Federation Internationale de Basketball will be meeting after the Rio Olympics to decide on a final ruling. As part of a two-year trial, now coming to an end, players can wear hijabs and turbans in some competitions. An online campaign pushing Fiba to allow for the hijab gathered 90,000 signatures.

Here at home, Lari has been working with the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy to support and encourage females to participate in sports.

“We must all understand that the barriers that have been in place preventing girls from competing in sport must be overcome,” she says. “If a girl is Muslim or even wears hijab, this is simply a form of a modest dress and not a sign of weakness but a sign of true strength and commitment. The hijab does not prevent females from reaching their goals or making their dreams come true.”

Amna Al Haddad is another Emirati who has been breaking stereotypes, this time in the field of weightlifting.

The first professional Hijabi Emirati weightlifter became the first Emirati, GCC national and Arab female to compete at CrossFit Asia in 2012 – and she did it in a hijab.

“Athletes know best,” says the 26-year-old. “Wearing the hijab while training and competing in weightlifting does not hinder my movement in any way, slow me down, or add an advantage. It is just an extension, a piece of clothing that represents my faith, no different than any athlete that decides to express themselves that suits them best.”

Al Haddad was part of a seven-woman team that earned the UAE a place – taken by Aisha Al Balooshi, who fell short of her goal to finish in the medals in the women’s 58 kilogram event on Monday – at the Rio Olympics.

“It is a great sight to see the barriers these women had to break and are still breaking in terms of misconception about what covered Muslim athletes can do,” says Al Haddad.

“I am honoured that my story has created an impact and change in the world, as well; despite not competing at the Olympics – I know my journey has inspired many to pursue sports seriously both locally and globally.”

It was back in 2012 that Al Haddad, who was working as a journalist for The National, decided to pursue sports on a full- time basis.

“The biggest challenge that Emirati female athletes face is the route to taking up sports seriously and as a career rather than a hobby,” she explains.

“Being an athlete is no different or less important than a desk job that contributes to society.

“The government can make a great impact on increasing female sports participation on a career-level through infrastructure, salaries, training outside of just physical education.”


Published: August 10, 2016 04:00 AM


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