Female Arab Athletes With Headscarf Problems, Again?

pretty muslim woman in headscarfIf football could redesign their way around the health and safety issue, why can’t judo?

The ruckus over allowing competitive athletes to wear the hijab – a garment representative of cultural modesty – is drawing fever-pitch attention to female Arab athletes.

Green Prophet’s reported on successful efforts to allow a sports-specific hijab for female footballers, but not all sports federations agree.

Last week, Saudi judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani was banned from wearing the hijab head scarf when she competes at the Olympic Games.

International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer has ordered the 18 year old heavyweight to step onto the mat with her head uncovered. A Saudi official said earlier this month that its female athletes would have to obey Islamic dress codes.

Judo applies strict safety rules and any covering on the head is considered a risk to the fighter’s health.

Fair point: but why can’t judo follow football’s lead?  Develop a head covering bespoke to each sport that also meets Islamic intentionality.

“The Saudi Arabian athlete will take part in judo and she will fight according to the principle and spirit of judo, so without a hijab,” said Vizer.  Talks continue between the Saudi Arabian National Olympic Committee, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the IJF to resolve the issue.

Shaherkani is scheduled to compete in the +78kg category on August 3. But this week the BBC reported that her father says she will pull out of the Olympics if she is not allowed to wear her hijab. There is no news as to progress with committee talks.

She and 800m runner Sarah Attar are Saudi Arabia’s two female Olympians.  If they fail to compete, they’ll at least earn Guinness Records as the first women to be nominated as contenders for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

The Olympics first allowed women competitors in 1900; well over a century later, KSA, Brunei and Qatar are sending female athletes for the first time this year. The Saudis waited until mid-July to announce that they’d send two women athletes to London. Western media are applauding the news as a “breakthrough for women’s rights”, but that interpretation’s overblown. KSA had held out on identifying female contenders, declaring  that women could compete in the Olympics – if they qualified.

If they qualified, and that’s the trick. Saudi women are banned from competitive sports; they are forbidden from entering all-male national trials, which makes it impossible for them to qualify for international competitions such as the Olympics. Saudi state schools offer no gym classes for girls; female gyms were closed in 2009-10; and women are forbidden to enter stadiums or register at health clubs.  Resultantly, their pair of female competitors never actually qualified for their events, but were given special invitations by the IOC.

Their last-minute reversal over female participation can instead be viewed as simply a means of avoiding their male team from being banned by the IOC for being in contravention of the Olympic charter.

This latest hijab brouhaha demonstrates that there is no fundamental shift in KSA policies towards women. It’s deplorable that the weight of  this debate falls on the back of a teenager.

Image of confident headscarf-wearer from Shutterstock 

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