Wearing a modified hijab wrapped tight around her head, the female Saudi Judo fighter Wojdan Shaherkani made history in less than two minutes. In her agonisingly brief moment of glory, she became the first Saudi woman to take part in Olympics. She later told reporters there that she hoped “this was the beginning of a new era.”
Indeed, the recent London Olympics 2012 hosted the most Muslim women in the games’ entire history. It is also worth mentioning that the 2012 games hosted the first Muslim female athletes from both Qatar and Brunei as well as Saudi Arabia. With this in mind, you’d be excused for thinking that Muslim women are pretty new to the Olympics but you’d be mistaken. Muslim women have been taking part in the Olympics and winning gold for decades now.
However as Sertaç Sehlikoglu who explores Muslim women’s role in sports at the University of Cambridge explains, the recent focus on female Muslim athletes wearing the hijab means that the achievements of non-hijab wearing Muslim athletes are often neglected. And yet, it is with these non-hijab wearing Muslim athletes that the legacy of Muslim women at the Olympics begins.
“Historically, Muslim women without the hijab have been involved in international games for much longer than those who do wear some form of the hijab,” explains Sertaç Sehlikoglu. “Suat Aşeni and Halet Çambel were the first Muslim women at the Olympics and they represented Turkey at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They were personally encouraged by Ataturk who wanted to get more women involved in public life and to create a modernised and more liberal society in Turkey. Like a lot of elite women at the time in countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Iran they also didn’t wear the hijab.”
Aşeni and Çambel were then followed by other non-hijab wearing Muslim athletes such as Moutawakel, Boulmerka and Shouaa who all went on to win gold medals. In 1984, Nawal El Moutawakel from Morocco became the first Muslim and Arab woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Eight years later, Hassiba Boulmerka from Algeria won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games in the 1,500 metres. Ghada Shouaa from Syria also won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and is still the only Syrian to have received a gold medal till this day.
Despite these remarkable feats of athleticism, today there is focus on (the novelty of?) hijab-wearing female athletes that overlooks this history and also side-lines serious female athletes that have chosen not to wear the hijab.
“Since 9/11 there has been an unhealthy focus on the hijab to symbolise Muslim women and that has also occurred in sport,” states Sehlikoglu from the University of Cambridge. “Particularly in the international media, there is a focus on Muslim athletes wearing the hijab and that has been to the detriment of non-hijab wearing athletes. For example, there was a disproportionate focus on the Saudi athlete [Wojdan Shaherkani] who took part this year even though she was was only a blue belt in Judo and was trained by her father.”
Sehlikoglu does however acknowledge the importance of celebrating the uniqueness of hijab-wearing Muslim athletes: “The presence of hijab-wearing women at the opening ceremony was inspiring and very influential across the Muslim world… It highlights the fact that wearing a hijab shouldn’t prevent you from taking part in sport and that you can wear the hijab and be an Olympian. However, this focus on the hijab has drawn attention away from other important achievements by female Muslim athletes that we all need to celebrate.”
One example that Sehlikoglu notes is that Turkey sent more female athletes than males to the London 2012 Olympics for the first year ever. The fact that most of the female athletes didn’t wear the hijab is one major reason, she explains, why the international media didn’t make more of this. Yet we need to recognise the importance of hijabi and non-hijabi athletes and see them for what they are – sportswomen.
The history of female Muslim athletes at the Olympics didn’t start in 2004 when Ruqaya Al Ghasara from Bahrain became the first women to wear a full hijab at the Athens Games. It began in 1936 with the participation of two young Turkish women. This focus on female Muslim athletes that are ‘recognisable’ due to the hijab distracts attention away from the wider achievements of Muslim women in sports. And all female Muslim athletes that make it to the Olympics – with or without the hijab – deserve our support and applause.