It was pretty clear from media headlines what the focus on fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was.
‘Ibtihaj Muhammad set to become the first American to compete in a hijab at the Olympics.’ (Telegraph)‘Ibtihaj Muhammad makes US history, wears hijab in Olympics.’ (USA Today) Meet America’s First Olympian to Compete in a Hijab.’ (The Independent)
There was also a clear spotlight on the attire of other female Muslim athletes in Rio 2016 Olympics, with photographs juxtaposing those who wore the hijab or a full-body kit with other non-Muslim athletes. There was Kariman Abuljadayel, the first woman from Saudi Arabia to compete in the Olympic 100 metres. Much was made of her being fully covered, but there was plenty of praise online for her efforts in the searing heat. There were the much shared photographs of Doaa Elghobashy and Nada Meawad, Egyptian beach volleyball players wearing their hijab, sleeves and pants – there was hardly any comment about the match itself.
This is in stark contrast to the focus on their Muslim male counterparts, where the emphasis was on their athleticism. Mo Farah (Great Britain), Al-Farouq Aminu (Nigeria) and Mutaz Essa Barshim (Qatar) competed in athletics, basketball and track and field, but nothing was written about what they were wearing.
This is not something new, as coverage of Sarah Attar (the first woman to compete for Saudi Arabia in the Olympics) and her full body sports attire in 2012 showed. But just as the Western media focus on what female Muslims athletes do wear, Muslim-majority countries also have plenty to say about how some sportswomen are not wearing enough.
In Malaysia last year, gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was attacked by her Muslim countrymen for showing her ‘aurat’ and the ‘shape of her vagina’ in a leotard – this, despite winning a gold medal for her nation at the SEA Games. In the London Olympics, Tunisian runner Habiba Ghribi was the first woman to ever win a medal for her country, but she has been criticised for her attire and for not donning the hijab. Hardliners in Tunisia have said they take offence to her running “in her underpants”, and that she is running ‘virtually naked’. In India, tennis star Sania Mirza was issued a fatwa to stop wearing ‘indecent’ clothes to play the sport.
One could argue that the Western coverage of female Muslim athletes centred on their attire because this is something relatively new – many countries such as Saudi Arabia have only just begun sending their sportswomen as representatives in the Olympics. Perhaps the attention on Ibtihaj Muhammad also stems from to the fact that she has publicly spoken out against the hateful campaign of Donald Trump, and it is irresistible to contrast the two. But if the more ‘liberal’ Western media keep lavishing such attention on hijab-wearing athletes, as Sertac Sehlikoglu writes, “to the detriment of non-hijab wearing athletes”, what hope is there for more conservative Muslims to concentrate purely on these women’s athletic abilities and sporting spirit?
In the 2008 Beijing Games, there were no female Olympians from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. Four years later in London, a milestone was reached – every Muslim majority country had at least one female athlete in their team. This is still a recent development for some countries and many Muslim women are still facing immense challenges in their sporting and personal journeys. If the question to their countrymen is ‘Why can’t you stop fixating over what women wear?’, the Western media could very well ask themselves the same question too.
Laych Koh is a Malaysian freelance journalist and writer now based in London.