The sporting world and the religious world seem pretty separate. You may not know that NBA star Steven Curry is christian, or that golfer Tiger Woods is Buddhist, probably because it doesn’t affect their careers.
But for Muslim athletes, particularly female ones, there are many barriers which make playing sports difficult. From hijab bans to Ramadan, Muslim athletes must undergo strenuous battles before even stepping foot onto the pitch.
When you hear the word ‘Muslim athletes’ who comes to mind? Maybe Sonny Bill Williams or Mohammed Ali. But what about female athletes who identiy as Muslim?
In a lecture recently, I was challenged to look at these pictures of women athletes and identify which were Muslim.
The correct answer is all of them.
What many don’t realise is traditional Muslim communities don’t believe women participating in sports is acceptable. There is the belief that running and jumping in front of men jeopradises a women’s dignity. Opinions are divided amongst Muslim women who partake in sports. Some feel it is totally acceptable for Muslim women to play sport in any circumstances. Others are unsure about competing in front of mixed-gender crowds.
You may be wondering how there can be such a divide between what is and isn’t acceptable. Muslim religion is closely tied to culture, so where you reside and what community you are involved in directly affect your beliefs.
There is an increase of Muslim athletes challenging these traditional beliefs and competing at international events. Sadly, often it’s only the athletes who wear the hijab that are given media attention.
For example in this year’s Olympic Games, a female beach volleyball match between Egypt and Germany was labelled the “clash of civilisations”.
As you can see in this image, it is clear why the conversation was sparked. This hijab vs bikini conversation praised sport as an equaliser amongst cultures.
What many didn’t realise is the second Egyptian teammate Nada Meawad is also Muslim but because she didn’t wear the hijab, she gained little media coverage.
Shockingly, up until the 2012 Olympics female volleyball players were obliged to wear bikinis or a one-piece swimming costume - a rule which some regarded as a transparent attempt to make the sport sexy. So, the fact either of these women are competing testify to the changes we are seeing in sports.
It is evident there are ongoing battles for Muslim athletes which many in the western world fail to comprehend. Events like this volleyball match highlight an increasing acceptance for muslim women to partake in sport which is something to be celebrated. However, the sporting world must learn more about beliefs and how to effectively cover Muslim athletes without glorifying anything or causing offence.