Day 6

The politics of hijab-wearing athletes

American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is making waves for being the first American athlete to compete in a hijab. But as people celebrate Muhammad and other hijab-wearing athletes as a sign of progress, freelance sports writer Shireen Ahmed tells Asha Tomlinson about the realities for athletes competing in hijab, and what the American response to Muhammad reveals about the country's conception of diversity.
Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States (R) and Olena Kravatska of Ukraine compete during the Women's Individual Sabre at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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You've likely seen or heard from her over the last week.

American fencer Ibitihaj Muhammad is a Black, Muslim woman who wears a hijab — and she has become the first ever American athlete to do so on the Olympic stage. 

It's brought her an unprecedented amount of attention, especially as Presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to defend his proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S.

Day 6 spoke to Shireen Ahmed, a freelance writer who focuses on Muslim women and sport, about the significance of her presence on the Olympic stage. 

"She's a very identifiable Black Muslim woman, and for me, represents possibility and she represents inclusion," says Ahmed. "And she represents a type of way that she doesn't apologise for her identity and that is really, really powerful."

But while much has been made of Muhammad being the first American athlete to wear a hijab while competing at the highest international level, she isn't the first Muslim Olympian to compete in a hijab. 

The reality is that many women in competitive sports find themselves in a bind in which what they wear can have a direct impact on their ability to compete. 

FIFA, the world football federation, had a ban on hijabs and other head coverings that was lifted in 2014. Today, FIBA, the international basketball federation, still has a ban on hijabs.

"In an era where we're talking about sexism and we're talking about women in sport, this is a crucial thing because it obviously excludes so many women needlessly," Ahmed says. 

Indiana State's Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir guards a Wichita State player in a 2014 game. Abdul-Qaadir can't turn pro because she wears a hijab in games. (AP / Tribune-Star / Jim Avelis)


The justification for these bans often fall under safety concerns. But that argument is not one that convinces Ahmed.

"Particularly with the basketball federation ban, there's no proof, there's not one iota of evidence that a woman has ever been injured in a mandated game by a hijab."

There's a flipside to a ban on hijabs in sport. Some countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia will only allow their female athletes to compete in hijab

"For example, the Iranian women's national football team could not compete, were not permitted to competition without hijabs. Yet for so many years, FIFA said they couldn't compete with hijabs. So where does that leave those athletes?" Ahmed asks. 

"What happens to them is they have to sit on the sideline. The people who lose out the most are the female athletes in this case."

Ahmed says it's time that women athletes had more of a say in what they can wear. 

"I have a very firm opinion that women should be allowed to choose what they want to wear, what as an athlete suits them, what they're most comfortable wearing," she says. "It should be up to the athlete. It's also important to remember that the governing bodies of these sports are mostly governed by men."

"I'm also very sure that female athletes are able — if they've mastered an athletic skill — they're also very capable of mastering their own wardrobes."

To hear guest host Asha Tomlinson's conversation with Shireen Ahmed on hijabs and sport, hit the listen button at the top of the page.