In World Sport, the Hijab Stands For Welcome

These days items of women’s dress – or rather headdress – are at the forefront of focus issues in public and political life. Over and above the access to education for all. Or employment. Or food. Or the right to, say, life. Who woulda thunk?

By Sharda Ugra, 12 Feb 2022

What if after those young students on the verge of exams, there is a turn towards those in my line of work? The sight of Indian women athletes in hijab are a rarity, their numbers may appear small. But that depends on where you are and what you see. It is not unusual to see little girls in private coaching academies in our big cities, learning hockey or football, wearing their hijabs while training. In Kashmir, for example, I’ve seen women footballers and volleyball players training and competing in headscarves.

Before the trolling of Indian women athletes begins as a new manufactured inflexion point by those in power, let it be known that, at least institutionally, world sport has taken considerable steps away from such uniform-bigotry several years ago. It is not unusual to see women wearing headscarves competing across international sports at all. It is part of the official sporting uniform in many disciplines, including swimming and beach volleyball.

Less than a month ago, an Iranian women’s football team covered in white from hijab to cleats held the Indian women’s team for a draw. It was the only match that the Indian women played in the biggest competition of their lives – the AFC Women’s Asian Cup – before a mass outbreak of covid due to sloppy bio bubble management sent them out of the competition. (Iran’s first female Olympic medallist, by the way, comes from taekwondo, a whirligig combat sport of kicks and punches.)

It is public knowledge that Iranian women have zero choice in the wearing of the hijab. In 2017, Indian shooter Heena Sindhu pulled out of the Asian Airgun Shooting Championship in Tehran due to Iran’s condition that required visiting female athletes to wear hijabs while competing and tweeted, “I feel that making it mandatory even for a sportsperson to wear hijab is not in the spirit of sport.” The best way to counter the adoption of restrictive rulebooks – in either direction – is to ensure that freedom of choice remains central.

In Kashmir, people from the region tell me, the hijab in sport was a post-militancy, post-1990s development. While not mandatory, it is an option that has become, a mark of defiance, a silent protest of sorts. Not every female Kashmiri athlete competes with head covered, but those who do are in a majority – exercising their individual choice.

Around world sport, alongside the fact that Iranian women like many women in the Arab world cannot choose whether to cover their heads or not, the hijab has also become a choice marker of identity. US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won sabre bronze in Rio2016,  became the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab. At her first World Championships in Paris2010, she found herself signing autographs.

She told the New York Times, “In France, a place that has struggled with the idea of hijab and with the Muslim community, I feel like it was a moment for even French citizens to see a Muslim woman on television.”

Badminton player Jwala Gutta is one of the more fearless in what is a growing tribe of India’s timid superstar athletes. Earlier in the week, she put out a Tweet with a photo of her great rival Saina Nehwal playing against a competitor in a hijab. “Respect everyone’s personal choices” it said. And ten or so minutes later: ‘for ignorant people, sports has clothing conduct, which we all have to follow… but women who have to wear headscarves are allowed to empower them and make them feel inclusive.”(sic)

Never one to let go of a chance of swooshing itself into public notice, the Nike Pro Hijab was released in November 2017 around the world. Ibtihaj was the face of their campaign but the ProHijab had been trialled with Emirati figure skaters, weightlifters and runners as well as a German boxer. These days there are variants to be found in Adidas, Under Armor as well as other smaller local enterprises.

When a Spanish company made a trisuit that worked perfectly for triathlete, Najla Al Jeraiwi across her three sports – swimming, cycling and running –  she improved her 100m swim by 14 seconds. Her Spanish coach wrote to the Washington Post, “we all almost cried of happiness that day at the swimming pool.”

Well before the hijab became prime time news, the intersection of how sport clothes the female body as against how the Indian woman athlete needs to be clothed while competing remains a conflict zone. It has taken a very long time for our women athletes of all dispensations to bear their shoulders and arms, to reveal a long length of leg.

The Indian women’s hockey team now wears bicycle shorts under their fitted skirts, a couple, including a Muslim player, adding tights to cover their legs. During her Olympic run in Rio2016, gymnast Dipa Karmakar received a ticking off by a Facebook Uncle, “Dipa should be ashamed of herself for wearing such a costume. The ‘costume’ was the gymnastics leotard.

In 2014, world football’s governing body, FIFA lifted a ban on head covering for religious purposes during matches. For men and women, the rewritten rule, which included the hijab and the turban stated, “female players can cover their heads to play… It was decided that male players can play with headcover too… a basic head cover and the colour should be the same as the team jersey.” The headcover rule did not turn football into orthodoxy central; what it did was open up the sport to more participants, of all kinds.

In October 2019, at a West Asian Football Federation Women’s Club Championship match between Arab Orthodox Club (AOC) of Palestine and the Shabab al-Ordon Club of Jordan, an AOC player’s hijab slipped off her head during play. Members from the opposition surrounded her to shield her from the public gaze till she fixed her scarf. A video of the incident went viral, the gesture was hugely appreciated.

What can also be noticed in the video is that the Palestinian player being shielded was playing in a team of all sorts – players with and without headscarves, some in tights, some in shorts. What was important was that, no matter what they wore, they were all at play. The play was what everyone cared about the most. Like the young women of Karnataka – and around the country – do for education.