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Olympian attire


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THE London Olympics Games have put the spotlight on the diversity and contradictions displayed by sportsmen and women belonging to the Islamic world.

By now all of us know who Rabia Ashiq, Sarah Attar, Woroud Sawalha and Noor Husain al-Malki are, just to name four women who, in this case, represented Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Qatar respectively.

There were other women athletes from Islamic countries who could easily be placed in this category. They too were covered head-to-toe in scarves, loose tops and leggings/baggy trousers.

In track and field events, where every second counts, scientists constantly endeavour to develop materials that reduce resistance/drag and improve the aerodynamics. Why are women from our countries asked to compete in clothes that must weigh them down? You’d probably be thinking what a naïve, even silly question. But is religion sufficient to explain away the difference in the attire of women athletes from different countries in the Islamic bloc itself and not just in comparison to the wider world.

For years, we have been witnessing women athletes from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey compete at the highest level and, if memory serves me right, none of them have ever appeared kitted out differently to the rest of the field. They are practising Muslims. In her brilliant piece, Huffington Post writer and women’s rights activist Shaista Gohir traces the history of participation of Muslim women to the Berlin Games of 1936 in which Halet Cambel was asked to compete in fencing by the founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Today’s Turkey belongs to Necmettin Erbakan’s and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamists, but the country’s constitution ensures an enlightened, modern version of the religion where if the first lady chooses to wear the hijab, she can. Similarly, women athletes can exercise their choice.

Therefore, it isn’t surprising that the world lauded the US-based Saudi woman athlete’s participation as a major breakthrough. For, in the kingdom, the exercise of choice seems limited to the males of the ruling class and religious leaders to the exclusion of not just the women of the country.

Sarah Attar and her compatriot, judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Shahrkhani who became the first Saudi women to participate in the Olympics were able to do so at the intervention of the king who made his assent conditional to ‘attire that appropriately covered’ the two ladies.

The Saudis and Bahrainis are allies. Only recently, Riyadh bailed out Manama by crushing those calling for equal rights for the majority Shia population in the tiny kingdom. As protests mounted, Saudi National Guard armoured cars rolled across the causeway, linking the main island of the archipelago with the holy land.

But when Bahraini women athletes made their appearance in shorts and T-shirts at the 2012 Olympics, they couldn’t have been further afield from their Saudi counterparts not least in terms of their kits.

It appeared significant that most women representing Bahrain were naturalised citizens, having competed at the international level earlier for their native Ethiopia. It was equally ironical to see women participants of regional-ideological rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran in attire similar to each other’s.

The idea here isn’t to advocate or support one form of clothing over another, even for enhanced performance. The point is that it should be the woman’s choice — rather than that of the self-appointed guardians of morality — to compete in whatever she’s comfortable with, and what allows her to give her best.

Morocco’s Nawal el-Moutawakel was the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold — I borrow heavily again from Ms Gohir’s piece — at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and remained unimpeded. She has been an inspiration and a role model for women in her country.

She organised the first women’s 10km race through the streets of Casablanca in the late 1990s. The annual race now attracts over 27,000 participants. She became the first Muslim woman to be elected to the powerful IOC executive board which decides the Olympics agenda.

Contrast her with Hassiba Boulmerka, Algeria’s first woman Olympic gold medallist, who won the 1,500m race in Barcelona in 1992. Her win divided the country. Some saw her as a hero; extremist groups slammed her for being ‘too revealing’.

Death threats eventually forced her to train abroad. She retired in 1997 after picking up a bronze (1993) and gold (1995) in World Championships.

Similarly, it hasn’t been easy for Afghan Tahmina Kohistani who has had to train for races behind closed doors in Kabul. Or Yemen’s Fatima Sulaiman Dahman, the only one left from 20 women at her club. She says she had to prepare in darkness, at night for the games.

It must leave those who take equality for granted a tad perplexed to say the least to see Saudi men clothed comfortably in ‘western attire’ without question: be it the full kit necessary for showjumping and dressage on horseback or a skimpier one for athletics.

In fact, regardless of their country, men from the Islamic ummah couldn’t be told apart from their counterparts from the rest of the world.

I, for one, am happy to support whatever Pakistani women decide best suits them. But our patriarchal society is such a vile mishmash of misinterpreted religious tenets, cultural traditions and tribal customs that when we aren’t telling women what to wear, we are forcing them to march naked in public as recent incidents in Sindh and Punjab have demonstrated yet again.

Yes, yes I have been told before that pessimism is a sin. We are not just talking of half of all humankind. They are half of our own country too — and dare I say the better ones in our case by a mile. So send some optimism my way if you see our attitude towards them changing.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

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Abbas Nasir is a former editor of Dawn.

He tweets @abbasnasir59.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

Essjay Aug 11, 2012 12:14pm
Excellent. Let us not digress: "The idea here isn’t to advocate or support one form of clothing over another, even for enhanced performance. The point is that it should be the woman’s choice — rather than that of the self-appointed guardians of morality — to compete in whatever she’s comfortable with, and what allows her to give her best." Let us play Ball - Beach Volleyball.
raika45 Aug 11, 2012 12:01pm
Remember the abrogine woman athlete of Australia in the Melbourne Olympics that won a gold in a race,dressed from head to toe?The only difference was that her attire was designed molded to her body not flapping in the wind like your modern day muslim athletes.You muslim countries do not have a scientific approach to overcome restrictions on clothing.
ssf Aug 11, 2012 04:35am
If an athlete is at a disadvantaged by wearing loose clothing there is no reason for sending them to compete in olympic, they become the laughing stock of the world.They should compete only among like minded countries. No wonder I don't see any medals for these countries. I know this won't be published but I am trying.
Surendran Aug 11, 2012 06:24am
Covering up women is a cultural issue and not religious, however, over time it has received religious sanctions so that men can be on top, obviously to satisfy the MALE EGO.
illawarrior Aug 11, 2012 08:01am
Religion has no part to play in sport. The Olympics were started to bring people of different races, cultures and religions together and as such Olympic rules state that there should be no overt signs of any religious affiliations. This has already been broken by allowing women to compete in hijabs, and was done in an attempt to encourage women from the more oppressive Islamic nations to compete. On the one hand it is great that these women have competed, however, it should be one rule for all. The minute you bend the rules for one, then it is open slather for everyone to want to do their own thing
Razzaq Aug 11, 2012 05:57pm
Religious also has no part to play in any progress demanded by the modern time.
Razzaq Aug 11, 2012 06:00pm
Thanks God, these ladies competed in international sports with out encountering any Fatwa from mullahs.
Shafi Aug 11, 2012 06:19pm
Although according to Islam, women are our equal partners but in reality we the so called Muslims treat them very unequally. Protagonists of covering women up quote that Islam 'orders' women to be covered up but if that was so why were the men folks asked to lower there eyes when they saw a woman? However Muslim men do not keep there eyes down instead they stare at them. Muslim women should be allowed to come out the dark ages and those who are talented in sports should be encouraged to take part wearing suitable clothes for the games. For example they can hardly swim in a flowing garb.
rana Aug 11, 2012 09:36pm
kindly, all read surah noor from Quran whereby women are told to dress modestly.
Salman Aug 12, 2012 01:50am
@ssf: laughing stock of the world? Is that why when the Saudi athlete ran, the entire stadium applauded her, even when she came last? Your comment demeans those making an effort. Glad most people don't think like you do.
Abdul, Germany Aug 17, 2012 07:57am
Dr. Shafi :) You are really a great scholar. Dark ages???? By the way , there is no question of equality or inequality in Islam. Women and women and men are men. Both have their rights and duties. If the Muslim males dont lower their gazes then Sin is on them. This is not a justification that women should make themselves half naked.
Abdul, Germany Aug 17, 2012 07:50am
Cultural issue? Mr. Scholar , would you please present some authentic source for your genius idea. Alhmadulillah Muslim women cover themselves modestly and winning in games or losing is of no matter. What matter is the end of a person and he goes to heaven or hell. So if Allah and his prophet ordered men as well as women to cover them properly then it is good for us.
Abdul, Germany Aug 17, 2012 07:53am
Religion has to play part in every walk of life. In economics, sports, education etc etc. This is the guideline that directs you to be on the striaght path. Without it you are an animal who have no idea what to do and where to go. A straight forward example is the non-.religiosity of west. They first allowed to stay togehter without marriages , then they allowed to have same gender marriages. What will be the future. May be they allow humans to have animals as partners. So when there is no guding force the societies goes deep and deep into trouble.