Amid the furore over the state of undress of a successful British female cyclist, the increasing acceptance of sportswear that allows Muslim women to compete has garnered little attention.
Recently, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) overturned its ban, which was enforced in 2007, on women playing football with their heads covered. The decision came too late for the Iranian football team. The ban had already prevented them from playing in their 2012 Olympic qualifying match last year. This was cheered by footballers around the world, some of whom, such as Australian Assmaah Helal, wear the hijab by choice.
London 2012 is the first Olympics where women will compete in all 26 sports on offer (although still in 30 fewer events in total), and Fifa is just one of many global bodies to relax clothing rules, thus allowing more Muslim women to compete in the Games. It’s impossible to know how many women will be competing with their head covered this year, but they include judoka Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim and runner Sarah Attar from Saudi Arabia, as well as footballers. Last year the International Weightlifting Federation also began to allow female weightlifters to cover their arms and legs, which led to the UAE female team being the first to compete in hijab.
What female athletes wear should get less attention than it does, but for many women who want to cover up, sports clothing can be a barrier to competition. Egyptian pentathlete Aya Medany considered not competing at all in the Olympics because female swimmers in her event have to wear suits that leave their necks, arms and half their legs uncovered.
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will become the first person to represent the US at the Olympics wearing a hijab, says she chose her sport because it allowed her to cover her body. Emma Tarlo, author of Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, says such barriers to participation should not be underestimated. “I have done research that shows that women have been put off sport because of clothing. Others have been excluded from sport because of what they wear.”
Rimla Akhtar from the Muslim Women in Sport Foundation said that it was important for women to have a choice: “A way has been found of combining women’s passion for sport with their passion for their faith and the sports hijab will certainly aid women’s participation in sport at all levels.”