Gold Medal or Headscarf?

With the world celebrating the arrival of two headscarf-wearing athletes at the Olympics, does their participation mark another step along the road towards emancipation? In actual fact, Muslim athletes have been successful at the Olympics for decades. The Games are degrading Arab female athletes by portraying them as something exotic, writes Manfred Sing in his essay

It is the final of the 400-metre hurdles at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984. As a curly-haired runner enters the home straight, she shoots a glance to the left and the right, as if checking to see what has happened to the others. A beaming smile soon replaces her look of incredulity as she realises that she has beaten off the competition. Even before she crosses the finishing line, the smallest runner in the field throws her arms up in the air to celebrate her victory. The Moroccan Nawal El Moutawakel has won the gold medal. She has also made history, becoming the first Arab African Muslim woman to become an Olympic champion.

That was 28 years ago. Today, El Moutawakel is a vice president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and is considered a likely candidate to succeed current IOC President Jacques Rogge. She is one of three women on the 15-strong executive board. At the opening ceremony in London, Rogge celebrated the fact that, for the first time in Olympic history, "all the participating teams will have female athletes," and proclaimed this "a major boost for gender equality." Three of the 204 countries participating in the Olympics – the Arab states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Sultanate of Brunei – sent women for the first time, seven of them in all.

As Rogge spoke, the cameras turned to the two headscarf-wearing female Saudi athletes, who, if the media are to be believed, are "the symbols of these games" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): judoka Wojdan Shahrkhani and 800-metre runner Sarah Attar. Wojdan's subsequent 82-second defeat brought her more media attention than many an Olympic champion, while she expressed the hope that she would "be a star for women's participation." Attar didn't have a hope of winning either (her personal best is 2:40) and consoled herself with the hope that she had helped "make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport."

Headscarves with Velcro fastenings

All of this has very little to do with top-class sport. As far as the IOC was concerned, the neat statistic of women's participation was the most important thing. In order to achieve this, a number of so-called wildcards were distributed among female athletes, exempting them from normal qualifying criteria and enabling them to represent their countries as sporting ambassadors. The representational role thus pushed the competitive sports element into the background. Not only does this create the impression that quantity is more important than quality in women's sports and the really "great" achievements are in any case reserved for men such as Wiggins, Phelps and Bolt. It also says that, three decades after El Moutawakel's gold medal, female Arab athletes, for whom "taking part" (i.e. elimination in the first round) is the ultimate experience, are once more being portrayed as exotic sporting rarities.

Moreover, the representational aspect can become problematic, if, for example, the hijab-wearing athletes find themselves being requisitioned, not only in the service of the Olympic ideal, but also for the political purposes of the country they are representing. Thus the idea that Arab sportswomen are something exotic is confirmed in two ways: through the celebrations of the IOC and the world's press over the participation of the two Saudi athletes and by the insistence on the part of Saudi National Olympic Committee (NOC) that they must wear headscarves.

​​The awarding of a wildcard to the Saudi Arabian judoka was not exactly without consequences; indeed it was used by the Saudi NOC to provoke a quarrel on sporting and cultural policies. Although in Rogge's words, "the IOC has been working very closely with the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee and I am pleased to see that our continued dialogue has come to fruition", it was only after a deal of to-ing and fro-ing, when Rogge's female-friendly games threatened to become a PR disaster, that the Judo Federation relented on its stance and agreed to allow the competitor to wear a specially modified hijab.

It is the second time that the sports authority has had problems with a headscarf ban: FIFA had banned the wearing of headscarves in 2007 after fears that they might lead to accidents on the pitch. When the Iranian women's football team refused to play in their qualifying match for the London Games if they were not allowed to wear the hijab, they were disqualified, and opponents Jordan awarded a 3-0 victory. Iran protested, even raising the topic at the United Nations. It was only a few months ago that FIFA relented and overturned the ban after the carrying out of "safety tests", later celebrating the decision as a multicultural advance and in the best interests of the sport. "Currently there is no medical literature concerning injuries as a result of wearing a headscarf," FIFA commented. The only requirement now, as far as football is concerned, is that headscarves should have Velcro fastenings.

Questionable "progress"

To tout these Games as the "most female" in history unintentionally creates a rather unfavourable image of women – not least because the Olympic movement is neither a particularly feminist nor a particularly innovative club. The rising percentage of women in sports is in fact a manifestation of social changes, a development which athletic associations cannot ignore. The London Games in 1908 were attended by 27 women from a total of 2,000 participants; today, 4,800 of the 10,500 participants are women, more than 40 per cent.

Muslim footballers wearing hijabs (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
An odd kind of emancipation: "three decades after El Moutawakel's gold medal, female Arab athletes, for whom 'taking part' (i.e. elimination in the first round) is the ultimate experience, are once more being portrayed as exotic sporting rarities," writes Dr Manfred Sing

​​In 1896, French sports official Pierre de Coubertin decided that the inclusion of women would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect". Four years later in Paris, the first women participated in horseback-riding, tennis, golf, sailing and croquet. In 1912, they were allowed to join the swimming, except for the Americans, whose own sports association did not permit participation in sports where no long skirts could be worn.

Since 1928, athletic competitions have also been open to women. However, the 800-meter race was excluded from the schedule for medical reasons until 1960. For the same reason, no women were permitted in the Olympic marathon until 1984. Norway's running legend Grete Waitz had already gained four of her nine victories at the New York City Marathon before she was permitted to run in the first Olympic women's marathon, where she won the silver medal. Most recently, women have been admitted to Olympic weight lifting and boxing. Before the addition of women's boxing to the Games, there was a discussion on whether the wearing of a skirt (as in tennis) should be made obligatory.

The fact that the IOC is basing its claims about the "femaleness" of the Games on statistics and the three Islamic latecomers is not very convincing, since neither the sportswomen's religion nor their ethnic or family backgrounds are any of the IOC's business. For this reason, the IOC did not release any official numbers for Muslim participants at the Olympic Games. All of which makes it unclear just what it is, beyond their own statistics, that the IOC is actually celebrating. Conservatively estimated, there must be around 280 female athletes in London with an "Islamic" background, about ten per cent of all Muslims participating, and a third of all competitors. The proportion of Islamic women participating suggests that there is still much to be done, and that the milestone the IOC would like us to believe has already been reached may still be some way off.

In many poorer countries, there is simply an insufficient number of suitable training facilities for top athletes, and the social environment is neither conducive to sport in general nor women's sport in particular. "We could have had many more great female athletes in Morocco if the people around them would just let them be," said El Moutawakel after her Olympic victory. "Most start at 13 and stop at 18 because they are told it is not something for girls to keep doing."

Hassiba Boulmerka winning the 1,500-m race at the World Championships in 1995 (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria winning the 1,500-m race at the World Championships in 1995: if conservative estimates are to be believed, about 280 female athletes in London have an "Islamic" background. This would mean that female Muslims make up about ten per cent of all Muslims and a third of all competitors taking part in the Games


Arab and Muslim Women at the Olympics

It is rather unlikely that the two Saudi sportswomen currently in the spotlight will do much to change this situation. Saudi Arabia's restrictive sports policies are neither representative of the Islamic world – there is no girl's sport in state schools, only in the private ones, and women are not allowed to train in sports clubs –– nor do they give any reason to hope.

Other associations have made greater strides when it comes to the advancement of women since the Turkish fencers Suat Aşani und Halet Çambel first crossed swords at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 – the first ever female Olympic athletes from a country as Islamic as it is secular. Along with El Moutawakel, there were three other Arab and three Muslim Olympic champions (from Algeria, Syria, Indonesia, Turkey and Kazakhstan). For 2012, Turkey has more women (66) than men (48) in its team; no bad thing in view of Istanbul's bid to host the 2020 Games. Egypt, with 34 out of a total of 119 athletes, has sent the largest delegation of Arab female athletes. Women from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and from Oman are participating for the second time, with the 17-year-old Khadija Mohammed (UAE) the first female weightlifter from the Middle East to have qualified directly for the Games.

A female volleyball team qualified for Algeria; a volleyball and a basketball team for Turkey. The Malaysian air rifle competitor, Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, will likely go down as the first pregnant participant in Games history. And while one of the female athletes in the Australian team threatened to stage a sit-down protest if a woman was not finally chosen as flag-bearer for the opening ceremony, there were no fewer than 12 female flag-bearers from countries with large Islamic populations: Albania, Bahrain, Brunei Djibouti, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Comoros, Morocco, Qatar, Tajikistan and Turkey.

It is even conceivable that the Olympic Games may soon take place in the Arab world. Qatar, another recent convert to the idea of sending female athletes to the Games, is the main mover and shaker in this respect. After being awarded the FIFA World Cup 2022, Qatar also made a bid to host the Olympic Games in 2020. The bid failed and the country was informed that any re-application for 2024 would be futile until it began to do more for women. Since then, Qatar has been striving to improve its image in this respect.

Ghada Shouaa of Syria (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Arab women have been successful in international sport for decades (pictured here: Ghada Shouaa of Syria holding up her gold medal in the heptathlon at the World Championships in 1995). Nevertheless, much media time has been devoted to the fact that two female athletes wearing headscarves are competing at this year's Olympics. The two women in question have been the centre of attention, not because of their sporting achievements, but because of their nationalities and their headscarves


Women's bodies and Olympian contradictions

The 19-year-old shooter Bahiya Al Hamad is the perfect advert for them after her haul of three gold and two silver medals at the Arab Games in 2011. The women's team for London also includes a swimmer, a sprinter and a table tennis player. Qatar sees itself as a force for modernisation in the Arab world; it is home to the television station Al Jazeera, has been a supporter of moderate Islamic forces since the Arab Spring and it set up the "Aspire Academy", one of the world's largest sports training centres, with facilities for 1,000 athletes. As part of its image campaign, Qatar has also put on the "Arab Women in Sport" exhibition in London, featuring 50 portraits of sporting women from 20 Arab countries.

Competitive sport in general oscillates between the cult of the body, sexualisation and commercialization on the one hand and beauty ideals, prudery and ethnicization on the other. Because women are expected to cut a good figure in competition, it is on women's bodies that these contradictions are most visible, regardless of whether one finds the visual impression made by muscly bodies, long thin legs, skirts or headscarves enhancing or distorting.

Potential medal winners among the female Arab athletes in London include Mimi Belete and Maryam Yusuf Jamal, both of whom will contest the 1,500-metre race for Bahrain. If one of them happens to win gold, the sports reporters will very likely point out that both of them are originally from Ethiopia. As if it would be completely out of place for a "real" Arab to win – and without a headscarf at that.

Manfred Sing

© 2012

Dr Manfred Sing is a research associate at the Orient Institute in Beirut.

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/