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August 19, 2016

Hijabi Olympics


August 19, 2016

You know what makes the Olympics historic this year? It isn’t that the Rio Olympics are the first to be held in a South American city, or that it’s the largest ever Olympic village.

It isn’t that, for the first time, an independent athlete has won gold – suspended Kuwait’s Fehaid al-Deehani, at men’s double trap – or that Rio features the first ever Refugee Olympic Team.

It isn’t even that there’s a record number of women, 47.7 percent, competing at a summer Olympics.

No, the truly historic bit is, of course, the hijab – for verily, these are the amazing, inaugural hijabi Olympics.

Witness the countless headlines breathlessly hailing the first United States Olympian to compete in a hijab: the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

To help us get to grips with this dazzling achievement – the hijab, obviously, and not the fact that she’s ranked eight in the world – we had BBC World tweeting about the incredible phenomenon as: ‘Hijab and a sword’ – which, we hope, is the start of a series, continuing with, say: jodhpurs and a riding crop; athlete pants and a javelin; leotard and a chalk bowl.

And then there was the viral image of Egyptian and German women playing against each other at Olympic volleyball, one in a bikini, the other in a hijab.

That got the BBC Africa account tweeting ‘Bikini vs Burka’ – not a burka, but why sacrifice a nice bit of alliteration for the sake of accuracy.

Meanwhile, a deluge of commentary suggested that this image - of two women competing in the same sport, at an international event – was a symbol of a cultural clash or divide.

As the Libyan-American writer Hend Amry tweeted in response, the actual caption to this picture could have been: ‘Athlete vs athlete’.

Some of the reaction to what we shall name the hijabi Olympics – or the #creepingshariaOlympics, for the haters – is to do with it being new.

Changes to the Olympic rules in 2012, along with last-minute, hijab-related concessions this year, have allowed conservative-dress-observing athletes to take part.

You can well imagine that liberal-minded people, seeking to counter all the abuse and discrimination that hijab-wearers in the West face daily, would strive in some way to salute the wearing of it by these Olympic-level athletes.

The trouble is that the overdrive gushing goes in the other direction and ends up fetishising – rather than just ignoring these bits of material as, well, immaterial.

Moreover, what has crept into so much of the commentary is a sense of – what shall we call it? – Orientalist awe, as with this Washington Post headline: “Muslim female athletes find sport so essential they compete while covered” as in, wow, these women love sport so much that they’ve even managed to overcome this uniquely disadvantageous Muslim religion thing.

If you’re celebrating the fact that official sporting bodies have stopped being so restrictive over uniforms, maybe spotlighting the hijab each time you see an athlete wearing one isn’t the way to do it.

Meanwhile, if you’re celebrating the fact that Muslim women are making it to the Olympics against incredible odds, maybe also mention that women all over, regardless of faith, face giant obstacles to compete in sporting professions where men are promoted, pushed and rewarded so much more.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Hello and welcome to the hijabi Olympics’.