Selective Feminism, Muslim women, and the Controversy Surrounding Women’s Olympics Uniforms
The Tone Up

Selective Feminism, Muslim Women, and the Controversy Surrounding Women’s Olympics Uniforms

The lack of outrage at the plight of Muslim women athletes’ at the women’s Olympics

When my daughter was in pre-k, she insisted on joining a dance recital class that was happening during school times. We were broke at the time and the recital practice cost extra. But then I found out after the first practice that every girl in the class was registered, leaving my daughter feeling left out, …. so I relented. The school principal didn’t know why I had initially said no but just that I had. Toward the end of the school year, we had to buy the costume for the recital (yet another expense and associated distress). The costume came and I was shocked. It was essentially a glittery bikini bottom and sports bra.

I went to the school office with the costume and said to the principal: “these kids don’t even have boobs, why are they wearing a ‘dress’ that sexualizes them?” This could negatively alter the way that the girls learn to experience their body’s movements — as free and as taking up space — and change how they perceive themselves (I was well-versed in Iris Marion Young’s ‘Throwing like a girl essay).

The school principal dismissed my concerns and chalked it up to me being a Muslim!!! According to her, I was too concerned with modesty.

On the contrary, I said, I rather my kid run butt naked on stage than in this glittery bikini, a ton of makeup, and hairspray!! (yes, a change in financial circumstance soon thereafter allowed me to move schools).

Fast forward to 2021. This month, the German women’s Olympics gymnastics team decided to wear full-length unitards at the Tokyo Olympics qualifying event. (The difference between the usual leotard uniforms and the unitards is that the unitards cover the legs, see picture below). The team said they wanted to combat sexualization in women’s gymnastics.

Image Description: Four women from the German Women’s Olympics team standing together wearing red & white full-length unitards
Image Description: Six women from the USA gymnasticWomen’s Olympics team standing together wearing blue and red leotards

Then the Norwegian women’s Olympics beach handball team was fined for wearing shorts rather than bikini bottoms.

Image Description: on the left side, a group of women athletes posing for a picture wearing sports bras and blue shorts; and on the right side, a group of women athletes wearing sports bras and bikini bottoms, celebrating.

Male athletes in the very same sports don loose shorts and loose sleeveless jerseys (see below).

Rightfully so, there has been a ton of outrage at all of this in the past few days from feminists in the United States and in Europe.

But as usual, what has been missing in this conversation around women’s Olympics is the silence and complicity of Western non-Muslim feminists in controlling what Muslim women can and cannot wear in public. This very same month that all of this has happened, European Union’s top court ruled that companies within Europe can ban their employees from wearing the hijab because they may want to “present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes”!!! How is barring a hijab a neutral stance? And this April, France banned the wearing of hijab in public by anyone under 18!! This is an extreme restriction on the freedom of movement of Muslim girls. But can you imagine Pink giving her platform to fight the ban on hijab in Europe, Canadian Québec, or on the many local sports teams in the United States?

Shireen Ahmed has written an excellent piece pointing out the lack of outrage at the plight of Muslim women athletes’ at the women’s olympics by the very feminists who are so outraged at the current Olympic events.

Ahmed writes: “My work is informed by my belief that hijab bans are a result of incompetent and unqualified men making decisions about women’s bodies and clothing, and it is connected to power they wield. It is a combination of misogyny, classism and xenophobia.”

You can also listen to Dr Nida Ahmad talk about the barriers faced by Muslim women in sports on the Muslim in Moderation Podcast.

Image Description: Two women athletes across a net, playing beach handball. One woman is dressed in full-length leggings and a full-length shirt. The other woman is dressed in a sports bra and bikini bottom

But why do non-Muslim feminists in the West have such a hard time connecting the dots between Muslim women’s struggle to wear what they want, whether that be a hijab on a run or a burkini to swim, and Great Britain’s Paralympian Olivia Breen’s fight to wear the length of shorts that make her feel comfortable during her long jump.

Why is the Muslim case so different for Western non-Muslim feminists?

The reason is simple: Still to this day, in 2021 when the world is so interconnected and our voices as Muslim women are readily available, some (such as European governments) refuse to grant us any agency. They assume that we must be oppressed and that we need saving from our ‘backward’ religion. Even in 2021, when we are screaming on top of our lungs, asserting our right to dress as we deem fit, some assume that we must have false consciousness, that if we insist on wearing a hijab, we must not know what is good for us.

And if only we can be forced to bend to the colonizer’s ways, our irrationality can be beaten out of us. This kind of paternalistic crap is grounded in the historical colonization of our lands and our cultures and fundamentally rooted in white supremacy that justified and sustained that oppressive colonization.

Ultimately, it is white supremacy that Western non-Muslim feminists cling to when they willfully ignore the abrogation of Muslim women’s rights throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States.

My daughter is now 13, entering high school this fall. She just asked me today to withdraw her during the coming semester from the swimming unit in her PE class based on religious exemption. I asked her why? She is an excellent swimmer, she was even part of the swim team at our local YMCA a few years back. She said she wouldn’t be comfortable in her full-length swimsuit in school in front of her teachers and her friends. She also told me that over the years, every Muslim girl that she knows at her school has done the same.

But then I showed her the video of Noor Alexandria Abukaram whose advocacy helped pass Ohio Senate Bill 288. The legislation prohibits schools and interscholastic organizations from adopting rules banning the wearing of religious apparel during athletic events. Noor’s confidence in her athletic abilities and her choice to wear what she wants is so admirable. As the swimming unit approaches, I am not sure if my daughter will ask to be exempted again (she might). But the fight for our right to wear what we want by folks like Noor Alexandria Abukaram makes a big difference. And we need to show up and support these Muslim women athletes with the same gusto as we do the Norwegian Olympic beach handball team.


Saba Fatima

Saba Fatima is a PhD holder and the host of the podcast 'She Speaks': Academic Muslimahs

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