Tag Archives: hijab

Majalla: Why Focusing On The Hijab At Olympics Was A Bad Idea

As the excitement and glow of the London Olympics 2012 fade, Arwa Aburawa looks back on the media’s unhealthy focus on hijab-wearing athletes.

Bediha Tunadagi of Turkey competes in the Women’s 58kg Weightlifting on Day 3 of the London 2012 Olympic Games

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.

Arwa Aburawa

Arwa Aburawa

Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK with a special interest in Muslim women, the Middle East and the environment. You can follow her on Twitter @arwa_journalist or via her website http://arwafreelance.com/

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MMW: Revisiting Marie Claire’s Coverage of Muslim Women

Muslimah Media Watch has published my article about the portrayal of Muslim women in Maire Claire- been planning to do a piece for them in a long time so it’s great to final get that done.  Even better, Mother Jones picked up on my article too. Here it is in full.


Regular readers of Muslimah Media Watch may remember last year’s article criticizing the coverage of Muslim women in Marie Claire. Guest contributor Asma Uddin pointed out that the magazine’s coverage showed Muslim women as “sequestered, brainwashed, and victimized, if by no one else than their own, naive, unknowing selves.” She went on to assess four articles from the U.S. edition of the magazine that illustrated this, which you can read here.

This is where a confession comes in. When I was younger, I used to read Marie Claire, and I have vague memories of enjoying flicking through its pages—even getting excited at its coverage of Muslim women. For my masters in International Journalism, I wanted to look at the representation of Muslim women in the media, and I focused my research on the coverage of Muslim women in women’s magazines and Marie Claire in particular.

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Muslimahs in the Media Do It Themselves

Muslimahs in the Media Do it Themselves

by Arwa Aburawa

Not too long ago, if anybody wrote about Muslim women in the down-and-depressed, stereotypical manner then it would be left to some sensitive Muslim man to reply. Or more than likely, it would just be left. All that is changing due to a new generation of media-savvy Muslim women who are fighting back with articles, blogs and witty comebacks quicker than you

Asma Uddin of AltMuslimah

can say “oppressed housewife.”

“I think the hijab debate in France back in 2003 made us all realize that stereotypes we thought we had dealt with were still there,” explains Rajnaara Akhtar of Pro-Hijab, a UK-based campaign group which defends the right to wear the hijab. “Certainly in France, the view still seemed to be that Muslim women were oppressed and waiting to be rescued. We could not sit back in silence any longer and decided to engage in the debate.”

Rajnaara acknowledged that part of the problem was that until recently, Muslim women have been particularly reluctant to talk to the press. Fear and mistrust of the media meant the many were holding back and were consequently represented by Muslim men- something which proved rather counter productive. “I mean you can’t say ‘look at how free these women are’ but it’s a man saying it! It was high time that we used our knowledge and skills to represent ourselves.”

On a more global scale, the rise of the internet has meant that many Muslim women can now setup a blog or website and speak their mind without fear that their words are going to be misrepresented. News sites tackling inaccurate portrayals of Muslim women such as Muslimah Media Watch (MMW) and Altmuslimah are going from strength to strength. MMW which started life as a one woman blog in 2007 was recently re-launched as a website with a 21 plus blogging team hailing from places as far afield as Egypt to Switzerland.

Fatemeh Fakhraie of Muslimah Media Watch

Fatemeh Fakhraie, the US writer and founder of MMW, remarks that she was uncomfortable with the mainstream media’s tendency to portray Muslim women as either “exotic sex slave, oppressed woman, or dangerous terrorist” and so decided to setup the blog. MMW states that it tackles “one-dimensional and misleading” representations of Muslim women in everything from small-town newspapers and blogs to major news channels and women’s magazines-for example MMW questioned the consistently negative portrayal of Muslim women in Marie Claire.

Whilst this media intervention is certainly novel, it by no means reflects a sudden awakening amongst Muslim women. As Fatemeh explains, “Muslim women have been thinking and writing and participating since the beginning of Islam but I don’t think anyone’s been listening until now… I do think there’s been a wonderful influx of differing Muslim women voices in the last ten years in response to 9/11 and the fact that, as Muslims, we have been forced into a spotlight.”

This “spotlight” may also explain the success of these sites and organisations which, Asma Uddin of Altmuslimah insists, are taking issues that were previously restricted to academic circles and the masses and Muslim women are dealing with them in their daily lives.

The increasingly vocal reactions also reflect a new generation of Muslim women who are well-educated, smart and unafraid to question what they read in the news. As Asma explains, “As second generation American Muslim women we are a lot more concerned with civic engagement and dealing with the media than our parents, who were busy trying to make a living. We have more ownership and confidence to express ourselves.”

Rajnaara Akhtar presenting an award

Rajnaara, who lives in the UK echoed this sentiment stating that Muslim women identify themselves as British Muslims and are secure enough in their identity to stand up for what they believe.  “We feel part of this society, we see ourselves as British… We don’t feel apologetic for our particular religious affiliations, so hopefully our positive engagement and responses will make it much harder for people to depict Muslim women in a stereotypical manner in future.”

Keywords: Muslim women in media, AltMuslimah, Muslimah Media Watch, Fatemeh Fakhraie, Asma Uddin, Pro-Hijab, Rajnaara Akhtar

Veiled Threat at B*tch Magazine

Well, its finally here! The piece I put together for Bitch Magazine on Princess Hijab is on their website. It’s so great to see it published as it was a challenging one, not only in terms of content but also having to overcome language barriers (Princess Hijab is French afterall).

Thankfully, the people at Bitch were great and Andi Ziesler was so generous with her time and getting useful feedback to me. Being a young freelancer, the one thing I crave is feedback! Constructive, of course I am only human :)

Enjoy. And feedback anyone?

Veiled Threat

The guerrilla graffiti of Princess Hijab
Veiled Threat
Article by Arwa Aburawa, appeared in issue Art/See; published in 2009; filed under Art.

Since 2006, the elusive guerrilla artist known as Princess Hijab has been subverting Parisian billboards, to a mixed reception. Her anonymity irritates her critics, many of whom denounce her as extremist and antifeminist; when she recently conceded, in the pages of a German newspaper, that she wasn’t a Muslim, it opened the floodgates to avid speculation in the blogosphere. If her claim of being a 21-year-old Muslim girl was only partially true, some wondered what the real message was behind her self-described “artistic jihad.”

In her online manifesto, PH declares that she “acts upon her own free will” and is “not involved in any lobby or movement, be it political, religious, or to do with advertising.” The Princess insists that, like the ape-masked Guerrilla Girls and Mexico’s balaclava-clad Zapatistas, by being nobody, she is free to be anybody. But as liberating as this anonymity may seem, it does leave her work open to conflicting—and occasionally unflattering—interpretations. On the popular blog Art21, critic Paul Schmelzer points to Princess Hijab’s work as an example of right-wing street art, surmising that her motivation is to cover the “shame of omnipresent (and often sexualized) ads.” Another blogger, Evil Fionna, argues that if Princess Hijab were acting as a fundamentalist Christian, her work would be recognized as “religious extremis[m]” that demonizes women and makes them ashamed of their bodies. And a commentator on the anti-Islam site Infidel Bloggers accused the artist of urging women to submit to the “tyranny of Islam.”

These observers also allude to the uncanny similarity between the work of Princess Hijab and that of conservative religious groups that have historically used less literal hijabizing to police the female form. In Saudi Arabia, the 80-year-old government agency known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is tasked with, among other things, blacking out bare skin wherever it shows up. In line with Sharia law, women in the pages of magazines, on billboards, and in other public images are painstakingly covered up: Katy Perry may be sporting high-waisted hot pants and a tiny top on her cd cover, but once the Committee gets through with it, she’s garbed in a long-sleeved shirt with matching leggings. (The group, notorious for beating up men and women engaged in “immoral behavior,” have also made headlines for banning Valentine’s Day and restricting the sale of cats and dogs, lest they be used by men to attract women’s attention.)

And in the U.K. in 2005, the activists behind Muslims Against Advertising (MAAD) began daubing blobs of paint on the underdressed models in street ads for the likes of Dove and Wonderbra, and in some cases ripping down the posters altogether.

The ongoing conflict over hijabs in her home country does give Princess Hijab’s work an inescapable political context, or what she calls a “shade of provocation.” France’s hijab debates first erupted in 1989 when three high-school girls were suspended after they refused to remove their Islamic headscarves at a school in a suburb of Paris. Successive years of controversy led to former President Jacques Chirac passing a bill in 2004 banning “religious symbols” in schools on the grounds that they clashed with France’s cherished notions of secularization; more recently, President Nicolas Sarkozy upheld the ban on burqas and headscarves in public spaces, stating, “The burqa is not a religious symbol, it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic. We cannot accept women in cages, amputated of all dignity, on French soil.”

But Princess Hijab insists that anyone confusing her work with that of either conservative culture-jammers or Muslims supporting freedom of religious expression is missing the mark. “My work supports right-wing radicalism like Taxi Driver support cabbies. I’m using the hijab for myself.” And looking through her catalog of work, neither label seems right. If her goal really is to cover up the skin-flashing women in ads, then why leave slinky legs on display underneath the painted-on hijabs? And if she’s aiming to make a statement about the dignity of Muslim women, why hijabize male models in Dolce & Gabbana briefs with shoulder-length chadors, leaving their tanned, oiled abs and legs even more preposterously exposed?

A Dolce & Gabbana ad featuring young men in underwear has been hit by Princess Hijab. Their upper-bodies have been spray-painted with black hijabs and headscarfs. The paint drips down their exposed lower-bodies.In fact, Princess Hijab asserts, her dressing up of billboards is a symbolic act of resistance meant to reassert a “physical and mental integrity” against what she calls the “visual terrorism” of advertising. Arguing that the human right of expression has been displaced by publicists, advertisers, and the machinery of capitalist, commodified culture, she offers that, “My work explores how something as intimate as the human body has become as distant as a message from your corporate sponsor.”

“Like that poster of Farah Fawcett,” she continues, “with her teeth clenched in fear above her perfect polyester swimswuit. When she revealed her cancer, we had to see her and her body as something capable of tragedy. It’s that sort of re-humanization that I aim for with hijabization.” Princess Hijab later admitted that this example, and equating wearing the hijab with physical suffering, was a clumsy one, but wanted the point to stand: Her work attempts to remove the hijab from its gendered and religious context and convert it into a symbol of empowerment and re-embodiment.

Equally central to her work is the goal of social equality. She notes that, in France, “You’re always being asked your origin, which religion you follow. It’s something that is very French, actually; you don’t see it in New York or Berlin.” Hinting that she is a racial outsider in France, Princess Hijab states that she is never taken at face value, but instead pushed into a homogeneous social group and then judged by a corresponding set of stereotypes. With stratification by gender, religion, place of origin, and sexuality, she asserts, comes groups that are closed off from one another’s experiences. Even during her time at university, she recalls her modes of expression being explained away by her origins: “I would be told [that it was] ‘natural,’ given my background, that I would work on [one] topic and not on another. I felt trapped.” But by highlighting everyone’s potential “outsider” status by imposing the hijab on public figures, PH asserts that she is “trying to create a connection with and between people.”

Another poster by Princess Hijab featuring the woman in the heascarf. Here her headscarf is black and the text beneath her face reads HIJAB-ADBack when Princess Hijab was believed to be a Muslim, blogger Ethar El-Katatney of Muslimah Media Watch noted, “I’d actually love it if it turns out she’s not a Muslim, because it lends credibility to the idea that the dislike of being exposed to ‘visual aggression’ is not necessarily rooted in religious belief. Fed up with women being used to sell products, hijabizing ads could be a way to ‘take back’ women’s rights to their bodies.” Indeed, in Princess Hijab’s marked-up art, the headscarf is an agent not of covering but of exposure—of the oppressive nature of the advertising industry, of the displacement and disempowerment of women who are repeatedly told that they are not good, skinny, beautiful, sexy, or rich enough. It’s work that owes much more to Adbusters or No Logo than to the Taliban.

Though Princess Hijab’s work has gained international notice, like much street art it still actively resists a simplistic reading. And that she uses such a contested icon to wreak artistic revenge on the dual constructs of advertising and social prejudice means her work is ultimately as much about the interpretation of others as it is about her own intent. “People are confused by me,” admits PH. “Some say I am pro-feminist, some say I am antifeminist; some say I am pro-Islam, others that I am anti-Islam. It’s all very interesting—but at the end of the day, I am above all an artist.”

Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom.

Link to the Article on the Bitch website.