Muslim women athletes call for focus on athleticism not attire


 ISTANBUL JAN 17, 2023 – 2:50 PM GMT+3

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (right) shakes hands with Zaheer Booth after a training session at the Fencers Club, New York City, US,  July 7, 2016. (Getty Images Photo)

American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (right) shakes hands with Zaheer Booth after a training session at the Fencers Club, New York City, US, July 7, 2016. (Getty Images Photo)

Muslim women see light at end of the tunnel to compete in a discrimination-free, religiously impartial arena for a more equitable, diverse sporting world where the focus is on performance, not attire


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As the Muslim population continues to surge globally, influential Muslim female athletes have taken a bold stance, demanding a free and religiously impartial arena to compete in.

By showcasing their athletic prowess, rather than their attire, these trailblazing icons have helped open up new opportunities for Muslim women in the sporting world.

Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur, in particular, has been grabbing headlines as the No. 2 seed of the Australian Open.

At the 2022 Wimbledon, Jabeur took center stage, blazing a trail for young Muslim women in the sporting sphere.

Other Muslim female athletes who have made their mark include Egyptian beach volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy, the first Egyptian woman to compete in Beach volleyball at the Olympics in 2016, as well as 3-time NCAA All-American and Olympic bronze medalist in fencing, Ibtihaj Muhammad, and three-time Egyptian Olympian, Aya Medany.

Thanks to their efforts, Muslim women see the light at end of the tunnel when it comes to competing in a discrimination-free, religiously impartial arena to make strides toward a more equitable, diverse sporting world.

Rules, rules, rules

As of 2019, there are approximately 2 billion Muslims in the world and in recent years, more and more Muslim women have been competing in various sports, such as fencing and figure skating – activities that were, until recently, unheard of.

However, it is difficult to accurately determine the number of Muslim women athletes, as not all of them are open about their faith or wear traditional clothing.

Fortunately, recent initiatives have sought to increase the number of Muslim women participating in sports.

For instance, camps and other programs have been organized to provide these women with the necessary skills and knowledge to compete.

In addition, more Muslim-majority countries have allowed women to take part in international sporting events.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics saw 5,457 women competing and over 15% of them represented countries designated as Muslim-majority.

Moreover, international sports federations – such as FIBA (International Basketball Federation) and FIFA (International Football Federation) – have amended their rules to permit Muslim women to compete in modest uniforms, including religious head coverings.

Similarly, the U.S.-based National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) also recently changed its rules to allow Muslim athletes to compete wearing religious head coverings, so long as they do not pose any danger to others.

Back again to the most famous Ons Jabeur, who is making waves again as she currently stands as the second-ranked female tennis player in the world according to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Last year, the Tunisian superstar reached the finals of the prestigious Wimbledon and U.S. Open tournaments and competed in her first WTA Finals.

Since beginning her tennis career at the tender age of 3, Jabeur has broken through the ranks and into the world’s top 100 in 2017.

Egypt’s 26–year–old Doaa Elghobashy continues to trailblaze on her own terms.

Among the top 500 volleyball players in the world, she is training to help Egypt’s beach volleyball team qualify for a second time in the 2024 Olympics, with new teammate Farida El Askalany. Elghobashy made history when she became the first hijabi athlete to compete in beach volleyball during the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics.

The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) gave her last-minute permission to compete in the Games wearing a hijab, long sleeves and pants.

“The hijab is part of me,” she told CNN Sports. “At the end of the day, it’s a sport and I’m not a model. I’m an athlete and people should focus more on my athleticism rather than my clothes.”

“Just because I’m a hijabi doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have the opportunity to play at the Olympics,” she added. “I did this, I achieved it. I deserved it.”

Despite the potential scrutiny and criticism, she staunchly maintained that the hijab is an integral part of who she is and she would oppose anyone who tried to stop her.

Game revolutions

International Olympic Committee (IOC) mentioned that all participating Muslim-majority countries sent female athletes to the 2016 Summer Games – with of course the exception of Iraq.

This marked a monumental achievement in modern Olympic history, as four years earlier, it was the first time every participating nation had women on their teams.

This included Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, who allowed women to take part in the Games for the first time in 2012.

The milestone was widely celebrated as a progressive development for female athletes, yet not all could reap the benefits.

34–year–old former Olympic pentathlete Aya Medany was one of them; she was the first Olympic pentathlete to compete in a hijab when she represented Egypt in the 2012 London Olympics.

The pentathlon is an event comprising of five different sports – running, swimming, fencing, shooting and horseback riding.

All of these activities, apart from swimming, allowed Muslim women to dress modestly; however, the swimsuit regulations were a problem for Medany.

Following the International Swimming Federation (FINA)’s ban on full body suits in competition that was implemented in 2010, she started to contemplate her retirement. As she wished to dress modestly, covering her arms, legs and torso in accordance.

“It was a very tough decision and like mentally it wasn’t easy,” Medany told CNN Sports. “I feel from inside that I’m not ok, but this is the only way. This is the best way, the best in the worst scenario.”

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, 37, recalled having to ask permission to compete in her hijab in high school, and how the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) required student athletes who wanted to modify uniforms for religious reasons to file a letter with the school’s athletic director.

But with her inspiring determination, Muhammad was able to help NJSIAA change its rules in 2021, so that now no student athletes need approval to compete in religious head coverings.

In addition to her efforts to make sports more welcoming for Muslim women and girls, Muhammad has also been an outspoken advocate for a variety of social justice causes.

She has authored a children’s book, “The Proudest Blue,” which celebrates diversity, promoted the Nike “Pro Hijab” for hijabi athletes, and even had a Barbie doll made in her likeness as part of Mattel’s “Shero” collection in 2017.

Along with fellow Muslim athletes such as Rima Medany, Ons Jabeur, and Nada Elghobasy, Ibtihaj Muhammad is a living example of how change is possible and works to be a mentor and role


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