As a woman who likes to play sports but not watch them, I've often found myself mystified by the power of spectatorship. Why are crowds willing to crush each other underfoot in response to a particularly precise kick? Why spend millions of public dollars on a stadium that will lose the nearby community money? What's the inextricable link between professional sports, politics and national identity? I'd long since given up the idea that I would ever fully comprehend some people's passion for watching other people exercise -- until recently, when I began to fixate on one tiny subset of spectator sports: the strides being made by female Muslim athletes.
It's hard to say whether Muslim women have been breaking through an especially high number of athletic barriers recently, or whether other people like me are overstating the phenomenon, looking for small groups of renegades to change the world. The struggles of female Muslim athletes certainly aren't new. Hassiba Boulmerka, the Algerian runner who won the gold medal in the 1,500 meters at the 1991 World Championships, was so condemned by fundamentalist Muslims for showing too much of her body on the track that she moved to Europe to train. But in the past few months, there has been a steady stream of stories about Muslim women who are sprinting, riding and generally kicking ass in sports despite the most extreme obstacles of discrimination, laws and culture.
During the Asian Games last month, Sheikha Maitha Mohammed Rashed Al Maktoum, daughter of United Arab Emirates Vice President and Dubai Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, won a silver medal in the rather unladylike sport of karate. Then Bahraini sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara captured a gold medal in the 200 meters wearing a hijab emblazoned with a Nike swoosh. Wednesday, the Yemen Observer profiled Ahlam al-Sayaghi, who's the only female to have ever competed as a professional equestrian hurdler in Yemen. "I knew that the community would not change their minds," she told the Observer about her determination to go against the tide. "So I decided to become the scapegoat and be the first competitive woman horse rider." Recently she was excluded from the Presidential Championship competition because of her gender, but because she also works as a national TV reporter, she decided to cover the event and interview the men who had excluded her. Talk about ovaries!
What's fascinating about many of these women athletes is their attempt to fulfill both fundamentalist dress codes and their athletic ambitions simultaneously. It's this sort of compromising that makes the uncompromising Western feminist in me unsettled. Earlier this month the "burkini," a full-body swimsuit for women, made a splash in Australia; in New Zealand, some Muslim women have demanded separate swimming pools for women. Maybe there's an argument for Saudi Arabia's embracing burkinis and segregated facilities, but Australia and New Zealand?
Honestly, it's hard to see how a woman sprinting in a hijab equals progress, when her competitors are presumably clad in whatever they want, but maybe this is a shortsighted view. A 2004 piece in Gulf News noted that fundamentalist Muslim ideals limit even men's participation in some sports, and in some countries physical education for women is outlawed. Against this backdrop, the Muslim women who make it to the Olympics or other high-profile competitions -- no matter what they are wearing -- are carrying tremendous symbolic power. That many women in conservative Arab nations and communities are becoming professional athletes despite strict dress codes seems to be testing the meaning of the veil. These bold competitors seem to be saying, "If God or government wants us in a veil, fine, but don't think that means we're not gonna use our bodies!"