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The hijab hurdle in sports


The International Federation of Association Football, better known by the acronym FIFA (because of the French name of the organization), is joining other athletic governing bodies in derailing the aspirations of some Muslim women to excel in sports. This month a referee in Bahrain barred the Iranian national women’s team from competing against the Jordanian women’s team in a bid for a spot at the 2012 Olympics. Also this month USA Weightlifting barred Kulsoom Abdullah of Atlanta, Georgia from the Senior Nationals competition this July in Iowa.

In both cases the reason cited was the hijab included in their uniforms.

At stake is much more than the configuration of athletic uniforms. With modern advances in hijab design, these decisions are unnecessary from an athletic point of view. Of much greater significance is the negative impact of such poor decisions on the advancement of Muslim women in society and, more broadly, on the participation of religious believers in public life.

A wall instead of a Wahl

In both international soccer and weightlifting, Muslim women are woefully under-represented. This is not due to a lack of desire among Muslim women to participate. Instead, from North America to Iran we see Muslim women desiring to engage in the modern world, seeking opportunities to develop and share their talents, including their athletic prowess.  Yet these women face artificial barriers erected by others.

It is important to note that men per se are not the barrier, for some men are partners with women in dismantling the obstacles to female advancement. This spring sportswriter and women’s barrier-basher Grant Wahl ran for President of FIFA on a platform that included a commitment to appoint a woman as general secretary of the all-male FIFA leadership.  Yet 74-year-old Sepp Blatter, who has staunchly kept FIFA leadership all male, all the time, was reelected for a fourth term. Thus, alas, the Iranian women hit a wall instead of a Wahl inside FIFA.

Between cultural rocks and secular hard places

The real barriers Muslim women face are cultural prejudice and lack of religious accommodation, or sometimes even anti-religious sentiment.

On the one side some Muslim women face culturally (not religiously) rooted attitudes on the part of some Muslim men that militate against women’s advancement.  On the other, some secularists seek to ban all religion at all levels and among all participants in public. Both block public engagement by Muslim women who wear a headscarf according to their understanding of feminine modesty in their faith. (Ironically, more than a few anti-religion secularists pride themselves on their support for women’s rights.)

Of course, safety is vital in sports. And some opponents of hijab-wearing athletes cite safety concerns.

But there is an obvious way forward: Create sports-safe hijabs.

Fortunately, someone has already thought of this, devising practical ways for hijab-wearing Muslim women to participate—safely—in modern sports.

Practical alternatives to the sidelines

In 2007 in Quebec Canada, during a U12 (under the age of 12) Quebec Soccer Federation tournament, a referee demanded that eleven-year-old Asmahan Mansour remove her hijab because by having it on, she was violating a soccer rule on safety. Mansour refused to remove her hijab and as a result, she was prohibited from participating in the tournament. The Quebec Soccer Federation supported the referee, stating that he was adhering to the rules of FIFA , namely: “A player shall not use equipment or wear anything (including any kind of jewelry) that could be dangerous to himself or another player.”  The danger cited was the potential risk of strangulation.

However, savvy hijab design could offer an alternative to the sidelines such as a hijab with Velcro or other emergency-release.

Elham Syed Javad, an Iranian-born French-Canadian Muslim, had precisely this idea in mind when she created her sports attire design company ResportOn.

In 2007, after hearing that five Muslim girls in Montreal were dismissed from a tae kwon do tournament for wearing hijabs, Elham Javad decided to create a hijab that would allow Muslim women to participate in sports with full movement and safety. After observing Muslim girls playing sports, Elham created the ResportOn head covering, which is attached to a camisole, from athletic material that is not only flexible but also clings firmly to players’ bodies.

She assigned the product the perfect tagline: “Be Yourself. Unveil your performance.”

If the ResportOn design does not meet the safety requirements of international sports, then organizations such as FIFA should at the very least offer Javad and others the opportunity to unleash their design creativity on this problem—one that is surely solvable.

Naked public square?


“Extremism” was how Mustafa Musleh Zadeh, the Iranian ambassador to Jordan, described FIFA’s decision, comparing the FIFA ban on women in headscarves playing soccer to the Afghan ban on women in sports under the Taliban.

Labeling the decision “extremism” seems a bit, well, extreme. Yet the Iranian ambassador may have a point. One can’t help but wonder to what extent secularist extremism, which tries to block religious actors from engagement in the public square, had an impact on the decision of FIFA, a Euro-leaning organization, to uphold the ban on the Iranian women’s team.

But does this space need to be devoid of all religious expression in order to be “public”?

Religious Symbol vs. Religious Practice

According to FIFA regulations (Law 4, Decision 1):

Players must not reveal undergarments showing slogans or advertising. The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements.


A player removing his jersey or shirt to reveal slogans or advertising will be sanctioned by the competition organiser. The team of a player whose basic compulsory equipment has political, religious or personal slogans or statements will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA.

But is the hijab a slogan? Or something different—and something more?

It is important to differentiate between a religious symbol or statement, e.g. a cross on a t-shirt, and a normative religious practice, e.g. wearing the hijab as do some Muslim women in order to follow their faith’s call to feminine modesty. For a Christian, wearing a cross on a t-shirt is an option—nowhere prescribed by Christian scriptures or tradition—and the cross would be a symbol, however revered by Christians. By contrast, for a Muslim woman, wearing a hijab is less a “slogan” or “statement” meant to communicate something to someone else than a matter of her own obedience to the binding commands of God.

(It is true that Muslim women are not commanded to wear the hijab in so many words. However, as Notre Dame professor Mahan Mirza explains elsewhere on the Contending Modernities blog, “the classical consensus [is that] Muslim women are commanded to be modest and ‘hide their beauty’ except for when they are with an inner circle of males. This has always been understood…as suggesting that something akin to the headscarf should be worn, although the extent of its practice and its exact form have varied in different societies through history.”)

One measure of difference between a religious symbol (or a slogan or statement) and a normative religious practice is what we might call “the bumper sticker test.” That is, would it retain its meaning on a bumper sticker?  A cross could go on a bumper sticker—it is a symbol that makes a statement.  By contrast, the religious meaning of the hijab is in its wearing. The hijab is a response of faith by the believer who chooses to wear it, whereas a hijab on a bumper sticker would be just a picture (and, all by itself, an opaque one at that). Even if the hijab picture symbolized something religious it would not in any way be on par with a Muslim woman’s personal act of wearing one.

Come as you are

In a world filled with inter-religious tensions, precisely non-religious activities such as sports can provide a public space in which those who are different can find ways to participate together.

However, requiring sameness in public spaces strips them of their public character, holding them hostage to narrow, private prejudice. If our public realms are to be inclusive and reflect the true diversity of humanity, then these spaces, including soccer fields and weightlifting mats, need to include the freedom for religious believers to be who they are—and to come as they are.

Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.  Sajda Ouachtouki is a student at Princeton University and an Intern at the Witherspoon Institute.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Elizabeth June 18, 2011, 12:56 am

    From what I have read and heard even from Muslim speakers, the wearing of the Hijab is of quite recent origin. The speaker said that in a university class in Egypt in the 1960’s no women wore the hijab, but it’s use has grown in the meantime and that it is a personal decision not required by their religion. Do these women wear shorts to play soccer? If so, how is that consistent with their religion?

  • Joe June 25, 2011, 1:37 pm

    Why is it that men’s attitudes regarding this subject are cultural and not religious, but the women’s attitudes are religious? (“some” is not an escape)

  • Dan Taylor November 14, 2011, 2:35 am

    dude, NOBODY wants to wear a unitard while lifting. just because i’d rather wear a t-shirt and sweats, and she’d rather wear a burkha, doesn’t mean we get to do it