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The many and varied barriers to sports participation for Muslim women


Penny Hopkins
WVoN co-editor

There can be no doubt that Muslim women face more barriers than most when attempting to take part in sport, whether as an amateur or as a professional.

Take 24-year-old Aya Medany as a good example. An Egyptian pentathlete, she has competed at two Olympic Games and is preparing for her third at London 2012.

The modern pentathlon is one of the most demanding events in the calendar, comprising swimming, horse riding, fencing, running and shooting.

Medany is heading towards her peak and yet she is considering retirement after this year’s Games and all because of what she is being required to wear to participate.

She competed as a 15 year-old at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and finished 8th in Beijing in 2008.  It was disappointing to her supporters back in Egypt and the Egyptian media were unsympathetic.

But difficult relations with the media were never going to deter her.  It was a decision in 2009 by swimming’s governing body the Federation Internationale de Natation (Fina) that has put her future in doubt.

Changes to the regulations about what constitutes legal swimwear mean that full body swimsuits are outlawed.

The Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM), modern pentathlon’s governing body, fell into line.

Medany’s religious beliefs mean that she must wear a full body suit but the new rules state that female swimwear “shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulder, not extend below the knee.”

“I might have to choose after London 2012.  I might have to leave,” she says.  The UIPM refuses to make an exception and Medany refuses to compromise her faith.

In another story that has been developing for some time, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has refused to overturn a ban on women playing football in headscarves and so has left thousands of women and girls in limbo.

The ban was originally introduced after doubts were raised about the safety of athletes wearing the hijab.  There have been no reported cases of injury anywhere in the world, but they are still considered a danger.

FIFA does allow women to wear a headscarf in confederations cups and games sanctioned by national football authorities but not at the highest level, for example in Olympic Games and World Cups.

FIFA’s Asian vice-president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan has been campaigning vigorously against the ban and seemed to have succeeded when in March the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which maintains the laws of the game, agreed that two new hijab designs with Velcro or magnetic fastenings were acceptable.

However, in a press conference at the end of May, FIFA’s Medical Committee chairman, Michel D’Hoohge told reporters that the designs were still not safe.

He insisted that neck injuries could be caused if a hijab was pulled, it could cause head lesions, or damage the carotid artery and there were concerns about the amount of heat generated inside the scarf.

Prince Ali Bin Al Hussain expressed his shock at the apparent about-turn:

“I am usually not very emotional but this is very important.  There are women serving in combat zones across the world and many of them are wearing the headscarves so I am disturbed by this being used as an argument.

:All we are asking is for women to be allowed to play football.  This affects many, many Muslim women.   I hope this issue is being treated with the same respect and seriousness that other issues are…The issue will certainly not go away.”

There must be considerable chance now that the IFAB recommendation to approve the scarf design will be rejected when it meets on 5 July in Zurich.

Thus while the talk in high places is very much concerned with increasing the opportunities for Muslim women and girls to participate in sport, not only are the barriers still there, but are increasing.

If these sportswomen are ever to achieve a degree of equality those fighting against these barriers will have to raise their voice and stick to their guns, as it were.

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