Earlier this month FIFA overturned its ban on the wearing of hijab in competitive football just in time for the London Olympics but too late for the Iranian women’s football team who were turned away from their qualifying match in Bahrain last year for wearing headscarves.
The case highlights the fact that many Muslim women both in Britain and around the world are excluded or discouraged from taking up sports owing to their desire to maintain stricter standards of modesty than sports clothes allow. And Muslims are not alone. A number of women from Hindu, Sikh, and orthodox Jewish backgrounds as well as people with weight issues are put off swimming by the skimpiness of most existing styles of swimwear. Many end up cobbling together cumbersome and improvised outfits from leggings and shirts or shalwar kamizes often in inappropriate materials for swimming; others avoid the sport altogether rather than face exposure.
How to satisfy notions of decency, efficiency and design has long been an issue of concern in sportswear. In 1902, the Amateur Swimming Association set regulations for men and women, specifying that swimming costumes for both sexes should extend within three inches of the knee. In 1905, the swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested for indecency on a beach in Boston for wearing a one piece swimming costume. The problem of trying to balance ideas of practicality and modesty resurfaced in debates on women’s swimwear for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Should women wear skirts, modesty aprons or pantaloons? Was it worse to risk women drowning in unsuitable clothing or for the reputation of the Olympic Games to be damaged by their inclusion in immodest dress?