With women’s football reaching record audiences and leading fashion brands releasing modest sportswear, Dr Haifaa Jawad takes a detailed look at the current motivations and challenges for Muslim women in sport.
The ‘Accept and Respect’ statement says: ‘Islam is an enabling religion that endorses women’s participation in physical activity.’ ¹
In order to arrive at that statement, it is important to see the view of the faith, the role of gender relations in Islam, and the effects on Muslim women and girls’ participation in the field of physical activity, because of the relative invisibility of Muslim women in major sporting competitions. This is due partly to social, political, economic, and educational factors. For girls in school-level physical education and sport, tensions can also arise at the interface of religious requirements and physicality.
Islam proclaimed the equal value of men and women as essential contributors to the private and public life of their society. However, the increased visibility of Islam in the West has been demonised through the messages propagated by the media, spreading and popularising particular worldviews, including extremist derogatory views which are not only offensive to many Muslims and non-Muslims but are also fuelling Islamophobia, impacting upon the lives of all Muslims, especially Muslim women globally. The degree of contention surrounding Islam, particularly after the atrocities of September 11th 2001 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, cannot be ignored, but current tensions and conflicts regarding the polarisation of Muslims and the West, are often based on lack of knowledge and understanding about each other’s lives.
A two-way learning process is vital since damaging stereotypes of both Islam and the West, exacerbated by media hype, can be equally misunderstood and misused. As Islamophobia against visible Muslims increases, Muslim women bear a great deal of the impact.
Islam on Women and Sport Activities
There is nothing in the Quran or Hadith that explicitly precludes men’s or women’s participation in physical activities, provided it does not take precedence over faith. Hence, the ‘Accept and Respect’ declaration claims that ‘Islam is an enabling religion that does not preclude women’s participation in physical activities’. The Hadith text contains some examples from the Prophet’s life that can be used to support the participation and equality of opportunity for girls and boys. Examples of the time described children pursuing swimming, shooting and horse-riding. There is a reference to the Prophet racing with his wife, Aisha, and evidence that some women fought alongside the men, which would require them to be physically fit warriors. This demonstrates equality and support for women attaining and maintaining physical capability in early Islam.
Entitlement to a ‘physical’ education as part of a holistic education is also supported through religious texts and examples. Since all Muslims are called upon to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave, girls and women are equally entitled to education in Islam as boys and men, and to the pursuit of a balanced and fulfilled life. This requirement of all Muslims supports the entitlement to physical education within the formal education of young people. Islam is a way of life that calls for the holistic development of human beings with attention to spirituality, as well as intellectual and physical well-being. As such, both men and women are strongly encouraged to live healthily in body, mind and spirit.
For visible Muslim women, however, there can be issues regarding the culture of sports participation environments and Islamic codes of conduct requiring modesty in dress. Modesty, as a concept in Islam, relates to moral values of what is right and wrong with regard to personal conduct, particularly with regard to sexual relations outside marriage. Requirements for such values are the same for both men and women. The Quran Says: “…And men and women who expend in charity; And men and women who fast; And men and women who keep their private parts wholly chaste; And most nobly men and women who remember Allah much; Allah has prepared for all of them a mighty forgiveness and incomparable wage” (33:35).
Women’s bodies and public visibility, then, are a central concern in Islamic culture. It follows that women’s participation in the sporting arena is contested because the dominant (Western/secular) sporting culture can lead to high visibility of women’s bodies and public mixed-sex arenas. Two main themes will be examined in this context as they represent a dilemma for visible Muslim women in sport activities: the question of hijab and the issue of sex segregation.
The Islamic concept of hijab in this work is used to indicate the practice of head covering, as well as the covering of arms and legs, which many Muslim women adopt in accordance with their commitment to religious adherence and the practice of modesty. Not all women who are Muslim wear the hijab or Islamic dress. Since some Muslim women do not adhere to Islamic dress, the focus here is on visible Muslim women. The concept of modesty applies to both men and women (Quran 24: 30; 24: 31).
Justifications are related to protection from sexual objectification and temptation to sexual transgression. Under Sharia Law, women are required to cover all of their bodies except hands and face, and men from waist to knee. While public manifestation of faith is essential in the lives of some Muslim women, others choose not to follow the Quranic injunction. For the former group, Islamic dress becomes an essential part of their ‘embodied faith’. With the recent revival of Islam worldwide, many more women are choosing to adopt the hijab in their everyday lives as a symbol of their faith. This can bring additional challenges to sporting cultures in which, through policy or regulation, the wearing of hijab is not allowed, for example in some secular states and some international sports governing bodies.
The issue of sex segregation is also pertinent to any exploration of visible Muslim women in sport. Islamically, appropriate sporting competitions do exist in a few countries. These have provided ‘safe’ environments for those women who prefer sex-segregated spaces in which to participate. The situation of visible Muslim women in the diaspora shows a lack of such opportunities in structural sporting provision, which can be a barrier for those women who prefer sex-segregated sporting spaces. The issue of sex segregation is, then, a real concern for many Muslim women with regard to active participation in physical activity.
In response to the diversity of experiences that exist today, the international ‘Accept and Respect’ declaration recommended that people working in the sport and education systems accept and respect the diverse ways in which Muslim women and girls practice their religion and participate in sport and physical activity. And, that international sport federations show their commitment to inclusion by ensuring that their dress codes for competition embrace Islamic requirements, taking into account the principles of propriety, safety, and integrity. Adopting such recommendations would lead to more opportunities for more women; a shift in sporting culture towards more inclusive practice that acknowledges the power of religious belief – and its effects on preferred body practices – in the lives of many.
The significance of religious belief in people’s lives should not be underestimated, and revivalist movements demonstrate increasing numbers of people searching for religious and spiritual fulfilment globally in the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, Islam does not preclude women’s participation in physical activity; indeed, there is support for women’s equal opportunities and for assuming responsibility for their own health and well-being as a life-long holistic endeavour to pursue physical, spiritual, and intellectual development.
In many societies, sport-related activities can be regarded as ‘non-serious’, low-status pursuits rather than serious, life- and-health-enhancing pursuits for all people. Paradoxically, sport may also be considered a luxury activity reserved only for the rich as access to fitness and sports clubs can be costly. It should also be remembered that sport is not high on the agenda in countries, for example, where there is risk to personal safety or where poverty and illiteracy are widespread and basic human needs may not be met.
To improve access to sport-related activities for Muslim girls and women would require sex-segregated spaces and accommodations for modest dress. Hence, women’s choices and voices should be heard, and provision made accordingly, to incorporate faith-based needs that will enhance participation. Barriers that can preclude the involvement of Muslim girls and women in sport and physical activity are normally related to situations where meeting needs for segregation or modesty in dress is problematic. This is more common in the diaspora, where provision is structured and organised in line with Western, secular sporting frameworks, dress requirements, public changing facilities and predominantly open mixed-sex provision.
Education and training for teachers, coaches, sport administrators, and organisers (both in Muslim and non-Muslim settings) needs to incorporate greater awareness of faith-based principles. Efforts are required to raise the status of careers in the field, such as in teaching, coaching, and leadership development for women in general and for Muslim women, especially visibly Muslim women. Encouragement is needed for the training and retention of interested Muslim women as role models who could influence future generations. There needs to be greater understanding and action from international sports federations to relax dress codes and provide resources to enable Muslim women to participate if, and as, they choose. Similarly, Muslim communities and especially religious leaders need to encourage women to take part in sport and physical activities.
¹ International declaration made at the IAPESGW 2008 study week in Sultan Qaboos University, Oman see www.iapesgw.org