I should preface this article by saying that I am not Muslim, but have lived in a Muslim country (Morocco) while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. While in Morocco, I usually ran every morning bright and early, hoping to avoid people and children walking around the streets because I got so much attention. My body was covered (despite the desert sun shining brightly down on me; my hair was only covered by a baseball cap to keep the sun off of my face) for respect of the culture and people in my village. It was [and still is] strange for a girl to be running and exercising outside by herself in Morocco. Sometimes the local kids would follow me on their bikes trying to talk to me and men would catcall me. I would try to ignore them but sometimes tried to avoid the attention by skipping my morning runs.
I thought of women and sports as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finishes up their visit in Chicago (one of the 2016’s summer olympic candidate cities). Since the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, about 22% of all athletes were women. In the most recent summer Olympics in Beijing, about 42% of all athletes were women. This vast increase means that more countries are sending more women to the Olympics, in particular Muslim countries. The United Arab Emirates and Oman sent women to the Olympics for the first time last year.
On an average, Muslim countries sent about two women to the Beijing Olympics. For the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, an international campaign (led by many European women’s groups) called the Atlanta Plus demanded that countries who do not allow women to be sent to the Olympics should be barred from participating. This group did not get the attention that it wanted, citing that countries who excluded women from participating in the Olympics was similar to apartheid in South Africa. The IOC believed that this was not a concern for the Olympics (it is also important to point out that currently there are only 15 out of 135 members of the IOC committee who are women).
Why are there few Muslim women participating in sports? Physical activity conducted within the framework of the Quran involves three major issues having to do with women participation in sports: sex segregation, modest uniform, and abstinence from vigorous activity during periods of religious fasting. But that does not prohibit all Muslim women from being involved in sports.
Ruqaya Al-Gassra is the first woman to represent Bahrain in the Olympic games in Athens (2004). She participated in the women’s 100 meter sprint, finishing in fifth place. Coming from a small town, she was able to participate in running and still remain a devout Muslim, proudly wearing a head scarf and her body fully covered. She said that “The hijab has never been a problem for me. In Bahrain you grow up with it,” in an interview with Reuters. No small task, she was able to overcome the fundamentalists in her village in Bahrain to run in the Olympics. I give Al-Gassra credit, for being able to not only overcome the traditions of her culture, but also work hard enough to compete in a sport that has rarely witnessed star Muslim women athletes.
Stay tuned for feature postings on Muslim women in sports.