Muslim Athletes Shine in Hijab

Veiled female athletes in the Middle East are overcoming different challenges to excel in various sports fields and shatter western stereotypes about their hijab, culture and religion, a recent research at Northwestern University in Qatar has revealed.

“Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include family, religion, politics, and culture,” said the research cited by Trade Arabia website.

“These issues often take place over use or nonuse of the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women.”

The research, “Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab”, is the result of a year-long cooperation between Northwestern sociologist Geoff Harkness and his course student Samira Islam.

It found that veiled Muslim athletes managed to excel in sports fields, overcoming a unique set of challenges with regard to the ‘hijab’ which is not faced by their Western counterparts.

Based on interviews with female athletes and their coaches at Education City, the study found that sports were often an empowering experience for young women.

The report is a part of ongoing research that Harkness is conducting on female sports participation in Qatar, as the country prepares to celebrate its first National Sports Day on February 14.

“There are a number of misconceptions about people from the Middle East, especially women,” Harkness said.

“One benefit of this type of sociological research is that it can help reduce some of those stereotypes and paint a more accurate picture of what life is really like here.”

Samira, an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, is herself a basketball player who helped in collecting outstanding data that supported the whole project.

“Because Samira was a basketball player at CMUQ, she had unique insights into the world of female athletics in Doha, and had established rapport with many of the players whom she interviewed and observed,” Harkness added.

“That, along with her natural curiosity and tenacity, resulted in outstanding data that was key to the entire project.”

The research was published in the latest edition of Contexts Magazine, a publication of the American Sociological Association.

Shattering Stereotypes

Seeing sports as an empowering experience, veiled Muslim athletes in the Middle East managed to shatter western stereotypes about their religion and hijab.

“Middle-Eastern women are often lumped together as representing a collective whole, but this could not be further from reality,” Harkness said.

“Indeed, many nations in the region are populated by expatriate women from other parts of the Middle East, as well as countries such as India, Sudan, and Ethiopia, making the notion of monoculture preposterous.”

Going through different competitions, many sports icons were celebrated as a role model for young Muslim athletes.  

Those models include Fatima Al-Nabhani, an Omani tennis player and Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al-Ghasara, who was fully covered and wearing a hijab when she ran and won at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

“Both women not only serve as role models for aspiring female athletes from the region, but also shatter Western stereotypes,” says the report.

Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.  

Physical Olympic sports such as rugby and taekwondo allow Muslim women to wear the headscarf in competition.

Yet, the football governing body FIFA has a ban on the wearing of hijab on pitch because of overly strict concerns over safety.

Hijab shined during Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 when many Muslim women athletes broke Western stereotypes, proving that donning the hijab is not an obstacle to excelling in life and sports.

During the games, half a dozen veiled Egyptians, three Iranians, an Afghan and a Yemeni were competing in sprinting, rowing, taekwondo and archery.