Hijab bans, Islamophobia, and cultural norms: Muslim women’s fight to participate in sports
Facing barriers due to gendered Islamophobia, cultural norms, and lack of representation, Muslim women often struggle to participate in sports.
In 2007, a young Muslim woman from Ontario was going to play a football tournament in Canada. Her name was Asmahan Mansour. At her team’s first match, the referee told her she would not be allowed to play with her hijab. Her team withdrew from the tournament in protest, and the case was brought all the way to FIFA, who decided to uphold the ban — effectively ending the potential career of Asmahan Mansour and countless other Muslim women.
At first, the ban was justified as a ban on “religious symbolism”, but this proved too difficult to uphold given how common tattoos and celebratory cross signings are amongst prominent male footballers. Instead, the ban was justified for health and safety reasons. Similar bans have been in place in other sports, such as basketball and boxing, even though there is no evidence that wearing hijab is a health and safety risk. Ironically, unbound hair is more likely to cause injury; several female players have been whipped in the face with braids or ponytails.
Given how the sports federations needed to bend over backwards to try and justify their rules, it is clear that the primary concern was not health and safety. Instead, it was an expression of Islamophobic prejudice which almost exclusively affected women. Effectively, Muslim women were being asked to choose between their faith and their sport — a choice no one should ever have to face, as it infringes on the right to religious freedom.
Noor Alexandria Abukaram, a high school cross-country runner in Ohio, said about her own experience of being disqualified for wearing hijab at a race in January 2020 that she was anguished and humiliated, and she started the campaign ‘Let Noor Run’ to prevent other women from feeling the same. Similarly, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, who was on course to become a professional basketball player in the US, has spoken about how she felt when FIBA (the international basketball association) announced their ban on hijabs: “I remember crying and feeling like I lost a sense of direction”. Now she works as a mentor for young Muslim women and runs the programme Dribble Down Barriers.
These are only some of many examples of Muslim women athletes who have faced exclusion from their sports due to the hijab bans — and only some of the many Muslim women who have taken up the fight to challenge these discriminatory rules and encourage Muslim women’s participation in sport. Most of the bans have been lifted now, largely due to this tireless activism, but incidents of discrimination still do occur.
Now, with increasing initiatives to encourage Muslim women in sport, such as the Sisterhood FC (London’s first football club for Muslim women), and increasing numbers of Muslim women participating in sport at an elite level (in the 2016 Rio Olympics, there were 14 Muslim women medallists) which show Muslim women that being Muslim and being athletic and Muslim are far from mutually exclusive, more and more Muslim women are participating in sport.
Sport is, and has typically been, a form of empowerment, and provided that the remaining Islamophobia, discrimination, and sexism within sport are combatted, there will be many more Muslim women participating at all levels of sport in the future.
JAN Trust speaks out against all forms of racism and strongly believes in religious freedom. Our mission aims to help Muslim communities and to empower women within those communities.