MIDDLE EASTWestern Media on Muslim Women AthletesThis report, the third in a series by Small Media, identifies the complex role of Muslim women athletes. Here, we explore what makes headlines in the western press, including the controversy over the headscarf and Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s decision to allow women to compete in the Olympics.
- By Mariam Morshedi, Small Media Guest Researcher
Edited by Small Media
- A Narrow FocusThe western media has a narrow focus when it comes to Muslim women athletes. Most news pieces relating to Muslim women and sporting discuss issues surrounding the wearing of the headscarf during competitive sporting tournaments. In the build-up to London 2012, the first female Olympians from Saudi Arabia andQatar made headlines, again sparking the debate about headscarves at the Olympics. What image do these articles impress upon the western public?
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- The Women’s Sports Foundation notes: “Many Americans have been conditioned by media, politics, and prejudice to associate women of Islam with notions of oppression and indignity. This pity is both disempowering and largely misdirected”.
Newspaper articles often capture more than their headlines suggest, but headlines are what captivate a reader’s attention. In this Small Media report we highlight some of the key issues often disregarded by western media, examining the cultural and political complexities of Muslim female athletes’ situation, which the skimming reader may not notice.
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- Glory is ComplicatedNewspapers pounced when Saudi Arabia announced in June that it would allow women who qualified to officially compete at the London Olympics. This decision, which was labeled a landmark “victory” by the media, generated concerns amongst human rights organisations and the athletes themselves.
Human Rights Watch, which has published a scathing criticism of situation of women’s rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, stressed that simply allowing women to participate in the Olympics is not enough. In contrast, voices from within Saudi Arabia reminded us that a top-down decision like this will potentially have complicated effects in a society that does not generally champion the idea of female athletes.
On 25 June 2012, The Globe and Mail stated, “Discussions on sending women to the Games have been wrapped in secrecy for fear of a backlash from the powerful religious establishment within a deeply traditional society, in which women are severely restricted in public life and are not even allowed to drive”.
In a follow-up article on 3 July 2012, Rawh Abdullah, the captain of a Saudi women’s soccer team in Riyadh, discussed her concerns over sending women to compete: “If they do well, it will be okay, but if they have weak performances, they will turn to us, and say, ‘See, you pushed, you went, and you lost. You shamed us”. The Globe and Mail, July 3, 2012
The struggle for control over women’s conduct and especially over women’s bodies is deeply-rooted in many societies, as women are often seen as the “bearers of cultural authenticity”. In Muslim societies, however, it is particularly politicised. Throughout history, the ‘western(ised) modernisers’ have seen the condition of women within a particular society as an indication of that society’s level of culture. They perceive the Muslim woman’s headscarf to be a sign of ‘backwardness’; simultaneously this very same item of apparel represents pride in culture and tradition for many who wear it.
In her landmark article “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation” first published in 1991, Deniz Kandiyoti (page 47) summarised this view:
“Just like ‘western’ colonisers who used the ‘plight of Oriental women’ as a hallmark of the savagery and depravity of the colonised and as a justification of the mission incumbent upon their own civilizational superiority, modernist reformers bemoaned the condition of women as a clear symptom of backwardness”.
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- In Muslim societies where women’s dress codes have become highly politicised, the internationally competitive female athlete faces pressure from all directions. She often faces disapproval, not just from governmental forces but also from ordinary people.
On 27 July 2012, the Huffington Post reported, “[A Saudi woman said] that when she recently went on a mountain climb abroad with a group, they were called ‘loose women’ and told they were ‘whores … on the path to hell’”. The following day The Guardian reported that ??????_?????????? (Olympic_Whores) had appeared as a Twitter hashtag. The Guardian subsequently observed, “[T]he thought of Saudi women running in a conservative tracksuit with the face showing is simply too much for many to handle”.
In her interview with The Globe and Mail, Rawh Abdullah continued, “We have to wait. I am afraid of their reaction, if we push too hard … We risk being shut down completely, and I do not want to reach a dead end because of impatience”.
- The Hejab – A Reminder of Cultural RelativismControversy over the headscarf climaxed after FIFA decided in 2011 to disqualify the Iranian women’s soccer team from an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan. FIFA said the decision was based on safety concerns, but many saw FIFA’s explanation to be simply a pretext, deeming instead that the ruling was an objection to Muslim dress. The Iranian authorities were outraged. In a seasonal news conference Ahmadinejad said, “These are the dictators and colonialists who want to impose their lifestyle on others”. The Iranian president said he had assigned Ali Saeedlu, Iran’s head of physical education, to pursue the case: “We will deal with those who carried out this ugly job. We follow definite rights of our girls”.
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- Like Ahmadinejad, many are striving for international recognition of the hejab, heralding its positive effects on policy in Muslim countries and its potential for female empowerment.
Others, however, are strongly against allowing women to compete while wearing the hejab and cite several justifications for their view. Firstly, they say that the attire poses safety concerns. Secondly, they claim that such dress violates the secular nature of international sports competitions. And lastly, it is claimed that allowing hejab in competition will undercut the ability of international sporting committees to sanction countries with human rights violations. The third justification is quite politically charged, as it is clear that the process of singling out countries for sanction is highly selective. Since 2000, it has only been Muslim-majority countries that have either been banned or threatened with banning from the Olympics on human rights grounds (Afghanistan was banned in 2000 and Saudi Arabia faced a potential ban in 2012), even though human rights violations are also occurring in many non-Muslim countries. It begs the question: is the IOC’s sanctioning value-biased?
The above-stated rationales were the same employed by French officials in justifying their decision to ban the face veil in France. As stated in the New York Times:
“Interior Minister Claude Guéant said it [banning the face veil] defends ‘two fundamental principles: secularism and the principle of equality between man and woman.’ A stronger argument is that any hidden face is a potential security risk, and it is on that basis that the law does not single out Islamic veils by name, but rather all facial coverings in public.”
On the other hand, Rebecca Ruquist, an scholar of race and religion in modern France, argues that the French ban of the face veil is much more rooted in the need to maintain a cultural hegemony:
“A more familiar explanation for French antagonism to the facial veil is historical and political: the deep-rooted French fear, resentment and rejection of the ‘other’ — the immigrant, the invader, the potential terrorist or abuser of human rights who eats, drinks, prays and dresses differently, and refuses to assimilate in the French way. Some of the French, particularly on the far right, still believe that France’s colonial ‘civilizing mission’ was a noble one, and that the people of former colonies, including the Arabs of North Africa, have clung to backward ways that they are now exporting to France. ‘The veil’s presence reminds French people daily that that mission failed’ … ‘It has been seen as a sartorial rejection of the values of the French republic.’”
Many who object to banning the hejab note the marketing and commodification of female sexuality in western societies, which can be also seen in sport at the international level. An article published in the New York Times quotes Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, as saying:
“[In Western societies, the more women] become involved in sport, the more it seems people feel the need to market female sexuality. It’s a tough bind for women — they have to look good and be attractive to the public, presumably a heterosexual male public, and be good athletes. That same standard doesn’t necessarily apply to men”.
In her blog, British Olympic weightlifter Zoe Pablo Smith argued that women athletes often find themselves forced into situations where they have to defend their femininity: “The obvious choice of slander when talking about female weightlifting is ‘how unfeminine, girls shouldn’t be strong or have muscles, this is wrong’. And maybe they’re right… in the Victorian era”. The New York Times pointed out that religious apparel is not the only subject to come under scrutiny: “Both badminton and boxing considered requiring women to wear skirts but backed off in the face of widespread criticism and ridicule, making skirts optional”. The Washington Postreported that the badminton governing body had been bold enough to state that the goal of the regulation was “to attract more fans through ‘a stylish presentation of the players’”.
Why should women be allowed to wear hejab while competing at the international level? Many argue that seeing competitive athletes in hejab inspires young girls in Muslim countries/communities to play sports. In an article published by the Guardian, Dr Emma Tarlo, reader in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, argues that barriers to participation are manifold:
“I have done research that shows that women have been put off sport because of clothing – that’s part of the problem with swimming for instance. Others have been excluded from sport because of what they wear … If you are sporty it’s good to see people you can relate to, especially if sport has not been emphasised in your community. Especially as the Olympics is in east London, because this is a multicultural area with many Muslims, to have sportswomen the girls can relate to as role models is a positive thing”.
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- Banning Female AmbassadorsThe highly political nature of international sporting events heightens the issue of women athletes’ dress. Writing for The Washington Post, Liz Clarke states:
“In one sense, the angst over female athletes’ attire in a handful of Olympic disciplines is a mere footnote to a 17-day global competition that celebrates the best in sporting achievement and sportsmanship. But in another sense, it offers a window on the complex and competing interests involved in staging the $18 billion Games: issues of marketing, gender politics and cultural diversity. And on the eve of the 2012 Olympics, they have collided on the peculiar playing field of women’s closets”.
Countries that compete in the Olympics view their athletes as ambassadors, and Iran is no exception. Writing about the situation of female athletes in the Islamic Republic, Leila Mouri and Kristin Soraya Batmanghelichi (forthcoming) state:
“From the moment the Iranian state referred to these female athletes as its “ambassadors,” what has resulted is a subject that is not merely a footballer playing a match in an international competition; it is a representative who acts on behalf of an ideological identity called the Islamic Republic … The FIFA ruling banning the hejab separated the Iranian sportswomen from their Islamic identity … [FIFA’s decision means] women’s bodies thus become lodged, both theoretically and literally, in a struggle between which political system, lifestyle, and ideology are better suited for the sport, and especially on an international level”.
ConclusionThe debate around Muslim women athletes’ clothing is far from over. Those in favour of banning the hejab remain skeptics, disbelieving that this fabric can signify more than a political or ideological struggle. These detractors cannot accept that the hejab can be a woman’s choice, despite the fact that many Muslim women themselves proudly defend their right to wear it. The right to veil and the right to unveil should go hand in hand.