The 2012 Olympics promises to be an exciting year for Muslim women athletes as well as anyone and everyone who enjoys debating womenâ€™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 womenâ€™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 womenâ€™s football team could not complete their 2012 Olympic second-round qualifying match against Jordan because they refused to remove their headscarves.
Muslim Womenâ€™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 â€œreclaimâ€ 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 â€œthe main challenge is the support of the family.â€
â€œIt is much harder to excel in anything if your loved ones donâ€™t understand why itâ€™s important to you,â€ notes Jassat.
MWSFâ€™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 â€œextremely difficult being different in the sports world â€“ be it for religion or race…â€ she also concludes, â€œI would never fence if it compromised who I am and my religion â€“ I love that the two work together.â€
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, â€œI feel I am strong and my husband says â€˜as long as you feel like that, energized to do that, it seems like that is your baby talking to you so you go.â€™â€ Malaysiaâ€™s best shooter will however not be competing in the 50m competition, even though she achieved the qualifying marks. â€œYeah, I cannot do a prone position with this big stomach,â€ 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 anyoneâ€™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.