2012 Olympics the Year of Muslim Women:
Muslim Women's Sport Foundation
01 May 2012
The 2012 Olympics
promises to be an exciting year for Muslim women
athletes as well as anyone and everyone who enjoys
debating women's rights issues. There is controversy,
there are lovely ladies, and an observant public. We
will probably be hearing a lot more from the media in
the coming weeks.
Muslim women athletes are in many ways stuck between a
rock and a hard place: between a religious orthodoxy
that generally frowns upon young women being seen in
the public eye and the West, which frowns upon the
covering of women.
The pressure is on, as Human Rights Watch has
suggested that if Saudi Arabia will not support the
participation of women in the Olympics, the Olympics
should not support the participation of Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabian newscaster Reema Abdullah
has been chosen as one of the torch-bearers at the
2012 London Games.
The big fuss over Muslim women's participation in the
Olympics invites the question of why more Muslim women
do not participate in sports.
Farah Jassat reports in the Guardian, UK: Cultural
barriers to participation were recently highlighted in
Saudi Arabia, when the country refused to allow Saudi
women to compete in the Olympics. The institutional
barrier, by contrast, can be seen in International
Federation of Association Football ban on women
wearing hijab. The Iranian women's football team could
not complete their 2012 Olympic second-round
qualifying match against Jordan because they refused
to remove their headscarves.
Muslim Women's Sport Foundation, based in the UK,
strongly believes that faith and sport for both
genders are entirely compatible and that the culture
of sport is an essential part of Islamic history.
Since its establishment in 2001 MWSF has been at the
forefront of encouraging physical activity amongst
women from British ethnic-minority communities.
Offering female only athletic sessions has helped to
address cultural sensitivities and provide
opportunities where more Muslim women feel comfortable
in enjoying sport. MWSF even allows mothers to bring
their kids along to training sessions.
This leads us to an important point: Participation of
women of any age in physical fitness, regardless of
religion, is often curtailed by childcare
responsibilities. This is most unfortunate, since the
only way for women to "reclaim" their bodies after
childbirth is through regular physical exercise.
American researchers report that the main obstacle to
female exercise is sheer exhaustion from raising
children and keeping house, in addition to earning
income. There is no way for a mother to attend an
aerobics class, run a few blocks, or even go into a
private room to do some stretches unless at least one
family member is willing to step up to take care of
the children for some time to support the desire of
the mother to get some exercise. Even those families
who cite their total dependence on the mother as their
reason for her lack of privacy should be aware that
she is likely to be around a lot longer if she has
access to some free time to work out.
Salma Bi, a cricketer and umpire believes "the main
challenge is the support of the family."
"It is much harder to excel in anything if your loved
ones don't understand why it's important to you,"
MWSF's International Sportswoman of the Year, Ibtihaj
Muhammad is an American sabre fencer who has made the
last two US World Championship teams and ranked second
in the US. She hopes to be the first Muslim woman
representing the US in the Olympics in any sport
whilst wearing hijab. Although she has said it is
"extremely difficult being different in the sports
world – be it for religion or race…" she also
concludes, "I would never fence if it compromised who
I am and my religion – I love that the two work
Another bright shining star hopeful is the Malaysian
rifle shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, who will be
well into her pregnancy at the time of her Olympic
competition. She will be the fourth woman to compete
in the Olympics while pregnant. The first was Swedish
figure skater Magda Julin in 1920, the second was
German skeleton racer Diane Sartor in 2006 and the
third was Kristie Moore, a Canadian curler in 2010.
Suryani told Reuters, "I feel I am strong and my
husband says ‘as long as you feel like that, energized
to do that, it seems like that is your baby talking to
you so you go.'" Malaysia's best shooter will however
not be competing in the 50m competition, even though
she achieved the qualifying marks. "Yeah, I cannot do
a prone position with this big stomach," she said.
The accomplishments of Muslim women athletes are
guaranteed to be a source of inspiration for the wider
community, states David Bernstein, President of Level
Playing Field and Chair of the Centre for Access to
Football in Europe.
The world is watching, regardless of anyone's opinion
on the matter.
The best we can hope for is that our sisters will make
us proud with their excellent performances at the 2012
Olympics, because no matter how they rank in their
sport, they are showing us what is possible in this
decade of history.
Karin Friedemann is
a Boston-based freelance writer.