An Olympic first for Muslim women? Not really

By Eva SajooIn the wake of the 2012 Olympics, there are a lot of firsts to reflect on. It is the first time since 1904 that Canada won a medal in soccer (thanks to our women’s team), the first time women boxed at the Games and the first time that Saudi Arabia, along with neighbouring Qatar and Brunei, sent female athletes.The appearance of Sarah Attar in the 800-metre race and Wojdan Shaherkani in judo has been hailed by some as a triumph for Muslim women — in part because Shaherkani was granted permission to compete with her head covered, despite earlier concerns that a covering around her head and neck would pose a safety risk in the ring.But the significance of Shaherkani’s performance seems limited, because Saudi authorities only entered female athletes after intense pressure from the International Olympic Committee. Not much is changed in the ultra-misogynist Kingdom of the Sauds, where women are not even permitted to drive, let alone to engage in sports or physical training at school. Many of these restrictions are relatively recent introductions to Saudi society — despite attempts 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 smashed stereotypes in her country — and earned her royal commendation, including a 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 were many other Muslim athletes in London this year, including Egyptian weightlifter Nahla Ramadan Mohammed and Turkey’s Asli Captir Alptekin and Gamze Bulut, who took gold and silver in the women’s 1,500-metre race.These women don’t make headlines for their religion. Is it because they don’t feel the need to wear head scarves? 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. Runners who wear 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 head scarf 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 head scarf.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 Afghanistan’s Tahmina Kohistani, who had to overcome extraordinary hurdles in her war-torn and very conservative country just to be able to compete. For her, wearing a head scarf 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. But it is worth remembering that participation in sport, as in 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 reinforces the claim that women who do not cover are somehow less Muslim. This only slows down women’s progress 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 in Vancouver. Her published academic writing focuses on the rights of women and

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