These Olympic Games have been flooded with women’s sports badassery — in events of all types, from women all over the map. But one of the most striking things about this Olympic Games has been Muslim women’s participation.
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first Muslim American athlete to compete in a hijab, a headscarf that covers the face and neck, at the Olympic Games. Her presence as an outspoken black Muslim woman has certainly been powerful. Time magazine named her to its 100 Most Influential People list, calling her a new face for Team USA.
And after marching out in front of the US delegation during the opening ceremony and competing earlier this week, she has become the first hijab-wearing American to win a medal. Meanwhile, indomitable teenager Sara Ahmed won Egypt’s first medal of the games and is the only Arab woman to ever stand on the podium for weightlifting.
As exciting as these accomplishments are, the media doesn’t always examine or present them in the most nuanced fashion. Muhammad’s hijab seems to garner more media attention than her athletic prowess. A thoughtful, unwavering black Muslim woman draped in red, white, and blue is an important image, particularly in the current toxic political climate of the United States that has shown systemic anti-Muslim and anti-black hostility. But like any athlete, what she wears — in this case, her hijab — should not define who she is.
To constantly emphasize what she’s wearing and not her athletic skill is tiresome. This is especially important to note since sports media seldom pays attention to women athletes in general and specifically leaves out other challenges of Muslim women in sports, including rules against hijab in sport or recreation or stadiums that ban women.
It would seem that mainstream media will only speak of Muslim women athletes if it can serve up stereotypical tropes. But Muslim women have competed at the Olympic Games for decades. Why is it only notable when they wear a hijab, or if they’re not dressed just like everyone else?
At the Rio games, Doaa Elghobashy and Nada Meawad of Egypt became the first beach volleyball players to compete in the Olympics wearing full sleeves and pants, instead of the previously FIVB mandated two-piece swimsuit. The coverage didn’t focus on the match itself, but on what they were wearing.
The juxtaposition of a fully covered woman engaging in a sweaty and sandy competition against an athlete with much less clothing is noteworthy, but the media remained fixated. Besides, it’s not like every team wears bikinis to compete, either. The Swiss and Dutch teams have donned less revealing uniforms to deal with low temperatures on Copacabana Beach.
Yet headlines such as BBC Africa’s “Rio 2016: Bikini vs Burka” reverberated through social media. Elghobashy was, in fact, not wearing a burqa but a hijab. She and Meawad (who does not wear a hijab) opted for long-sleeved shirts similar to rash guards and fitted pants similar to the selections from one of the many modest sportswear companies specializing in outfits for Muslim women.
Hey I've got a crazy idea: how about "athlete vs athlete"? pic.twitter.com/I9v10YOFRm— Hend Amry (@LibyaLiberty) August 8, 2016
Not only did this needlessly incite an unnecessary wardrobe battle, but the headlines were misinformed as to what this Muslim woman’s attire actually was.
I recently attributed this problem to the reality that 90 percent of sportswriters are white and the same proportion are male. The lens through which they look at women — particularly women of color — in sports can yield narratives that are uncreative at best. After Elghobashy and Meawad’s beach volley debut, further reductive discussions of “culture clashes” ensued with an underlying tone of gendered Islamophobia.
In some cases, writers inject an ignorant view of the athletes and their hijab. In a Toronto Sun column on hijab at the Olympics, columnist Candice Malcolm asserts, “The hijab, very often, is coercion disguised as freedom.” In majority-Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, Bosnia, Kosovo, or Somalia, hijab is not mandatory for sport. In others, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, athletes must wear hijab to represent those nations.
Even though not every majority-Muslim country mandates a headscarf for its female athletes, Muslim women athletes face criticism for their choice to wear one. For example, Egypt, Palestine, and Pakistan sent women to compete in swimming events in Rio; neither Farida Osman, Lianna Swan, nor Mary Al-Atrash wear long sleeves, pants, or hijab in the pool. Although Turkey’s volleyball team did not qualify for Rio, the women did go to the 2012 games in London, and they were not “burqa”-clad.
Before them, there’s been a long history of Muslim women at the Olympics and Paralympics, both veiled and unveiled. Turkish fencer Halet Cambel was the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics, at the 1936 games in Berlin during the rise of Nazism. Cambel famously rejected a meeting with Adolf Hitler because of her political beliefs. In 2004 in Athens, Greece, Bahraini sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara became the first woman to wear a hijab at the Olympics. Years later, Muhammad and Elghobashy are not the first women to compete in hijab, but they will certainly not be the last. By doing so, they inspire girls and women by lifting spirits and unveiling possibilities.
Muhammad says her sport further empowers her because her uniform does not differentiate her from other fencers. "In fencing, I've always loved in my sport once I put my mask on, I'm like everyone else,” she said to CNBC. “My uniform doesn't seem different in any way. People don't see I'm African American in a sport that isn't diverse, or that I'm a Muslim woman in a sport that isn't diverse. I'm just solely known for my kind of athletic ability first and foremost."
If only sports media had the same view.
In a world that still debates whether a hijab can have a place on the court, these formidable athletes make the impossible seem possible — uninformed sports reporting notwithstanding. The sooner that media stops making an article of clothing the sole focus of a female athlete’s identity, the faster sport can be elevated for all women.