Covering Muslim women: The Olympics and beyond

Saudi Arabia’s Wojdan Shaherkani, left, competes with Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico in the women’s 78-kg judo event at the Olympic
Photograph by: Quinn Rooney, Getty Images, Postmedia News


VANCOUVER — On Aug. 4, Wojdan Shaherkani became the first Saudi woman to compete in the Olympics. While her judo match lasted a mere 82 seconds, her appearance in the Games has been hailed as a triumph for Muslim women. In part this is because she was granted permission to compete in a headscarf, despite earlier concerns that the drape around her head and neck would pose a safety risk in the ring.

The significance of Ms. Shakerkani’s performance seems limited because Saudi authorities, (along with Qatar and Brunei) only entered female athletes after intense pressure from the International Olympic Committee. It does not change much in the ultra-misogynist Kingdom of the al-Sauds, where women are not even permitted to drive, let alone to engage in sports or physical training at school. These supposedly religious restrictions are actually quite recent— despite the attempt to justify them as Islamic requirements.

Whatever Shaherkani’s appearance may mean for Saudi women, it certainly does not represent progress for Muslim women. The massive coverage of her story ignores the fact that Muslim women have been competing in the Olympic Games (far more successfully that their Saudi sisters) for decades.

Take Nawal El Moutawakel, the Moroccan hurdler who won the 400-metre race in the 1984 Summer Olympics. Her success broke down stereotypes in her country — and earned her royal commendation, including a royal decree that girls born on the day of her victory should be named after her. She has since organized successful local racing events for Moroccan women, and is currently a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Soraya Haddad, an Algerian judoka known as “The Iron Lady of El Kseur” won a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This year Iraqi sprinter Dana Abdul Razzaq competed in the Games, and was her country’s flag bearer in the opening ceremony.

There are many other Muslim athletes in London this year, including Egyptian weightlifter Nahla Ramadan Mohammed and Turkey’s female volleyball team, collectively known as the “Sultanas of the Net.”

These women don’t make headlines for their religion. Is it because they don’t feel the need to wear headscarves? Or the fact that their countries have not discouraged their participation? The truth is that Wojdan Shaherkani fits much better into the western stereotype of Muslim women: uncompetitive hijabis labouring under patriarchal oppression. North African sprinters who take gold and not scarves don’t get reported as “Muslim.”

Saudi Arabia has been working hard to export its peculiarly backward attitude toward women as the authentic version of Islam for Muslims everywhere. It has had considerable success on this score, considering how widely the Saudi headscarf has been adopted as “authentically” Muslim. Ironically, when western media represent Shaherkani as an example of progress for Muslim women, we inadvertently reinforce the notion that the Saudi version is “real Islam.” How do we know if a woman is Muslim? She wears a headscarf.

The fact that Olympic regulations have been changed to allow women to cover their heads for religious reasons is a step forward. It removes additional barriers for heroic women like Tahmina Kohistani from Afghanistan, who had to overcome extraordinary hurdles in her war-torn and very conservative country just to be able to compete. For her, wearing a headscarf is necessary to avoid severe repercussions at home. Her performance nevertheless presents Afghans with a bold vision of what women can do.

For Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, having women compete in the Olympics is a major change. However, it is worth remembering that participation in sport, like politics and business, is not new for Muslim women. They were active even on the battlefields of the Arabian peninsula centuries ago. In our own time, women drove freely in the streets of Saudi Arabia. Patriarchal forces, like the Saudi authorities, have attempted to wipe out this history. Only such amnesia could make their assertion that female oppression is required by Islam seem credible.

Media coverage that buys this story only reinforces the claim that women who do not cover are somehow less Muslim. This only slows down the progress made by women in conservative societies against barriers that have everything to do with patriarchy and nothing to do with faith.


Eva Sajoo is a research associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University.

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