THE London Olympics Games have put the spotlight on the diversity and contradictions displayed by sportsmen and women belonging to the Islamic world.
By now all of us know who Rabia Ashiq, Sarah Attar, Woroud Sawalha and Noor Husain al-Malki are, just to name four women who, in this case, represented Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Qatar respectively.
There were other women athletes from Islamic countries who could easily be placed in this category. They too were covered head-to-toe in scarves, loose tops and leggings/baggy trousers.
In track and field events, where every second counts, scientists constantly endeavour to develop materials that reduce resistance/drag and improve the aerodynamics. Why are women from our countries asked to compete in clothes that must weigh them down? You’d probably be thinking what a naïve, even silly question. But is religion sufficient to explain away the difference in the attire of women athletes from different countries in the Islamic bloc itself and not just in comparison to the wider world.
For years, we have been witnessing women athletes from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey compete at the highest level and, if memory serves me right, none of them have ever appeared kitted out differently to the rest of the field. They are practising Muslims. In her brilliant piece, Huffington Post writer and women’s rights activist Shaista Gohir traces the history of participation of Muslim women to the Berlin Games of 1936 in which Halet Cambel was asked to compete in fencing by the founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Today’s Turkey belongs to Necmettin Erbakan’s and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamists, but the country’s constitution ensures an enlightened, modern version of the religion where if the first lady chooses to wear the hijab, she can. Similarly, women athletes can exercise their choice.
Therefore, it isn’t surprising that the world lauded the US-based Saudi woman athlete’s participation as a major breakthrough.
For, in the kingdom, the exercise of choice seems limited to the males of the ruling class and religious leaders to the exclusion of not just the women of the country.
Sarah Attar and her compatriot, judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Shahrkhani who became the first Saudi women to participate in the Olympics were able to do so at the intervention of the king who made his assent conditional to ‘attire that appropriately covered’ the two ladies.
The Saudis and Bahrainis are allies. Only recently, Riyadh bailed out Manama by crushing those calling for equal rights for the majority Shia population in the tiny kingdom. As protests mounted, Saudi National Guard armoured cars rolled across the causeway, linking the main island of the archipelago with the holy land.
But when Bahraini women athletes made their appearance in shorts and T-shirts at the 2012 Olympics, they couldn’t have been further afield from their Saudi counterparts not least in terms of their kits.
It appeared significant that most women representing Bahrain were naturalised citizens, having competed at the international level earlier for their native Ethiopia. It was equally ironical to see women participants of regional-ideological rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran in attire similar to each other’s.
The idea here isn’t to advocate or support one form of clothing over another, even for enhanced performance. The point is that it should be the woman’s choice — rather than that of the self-appointed guardians of morality — to compete in whatever she’s comfortable with, and what allows her to give her best.
Morocco’s Nawal el-Moutawakel was the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold — I borrow heavily again from Ms Gohir’s piece — at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and remained unimpeded. She has been an inspiration and a role model for women in her country.
She organised the first women’s 10km race through the streets of Casablanca in the late 1990s. The annual race now attracts over 27,000 participants. She became the first Muslim woman to be elected to the powerful IOC executive board which decides the Olympics agenda.
Contrast her with Hassiba Boulmerka, Algeria’s first woman Olympic gold medallist, who won the 1,500m race in Barcelona in 1992. Her win divided the country. Some saw her as a hero; extremist groups slammed her for being ‘too revealing’.
Death threats eventually forced her to train abroad. She retired in 1997 after picking up a bronze (1993) and gold (1995) in World Championships.
Similarly, it hasn’t been easy for Afghan Tahmina Kohistani who has had to train for races behind closed doors in Kabul. Or Yemen’s Fatima Sulaiman Dahman, the only one left from 20 women at her club. She says she had to prepare in darkness, at night for the games.
It must leave those who take equality for granted a tad perplexed to say the least to see Saudi men clothed comfortably in ‘western attire’ without question: be it the full kit necessary for showjumping and dressage on horseback or a skimpier one for athletics.
In fact, regardless of their country, men from the Islamic ummah couldn’t be told apart from their counterparts from the rest of the world.
I, for one, am happy to support whatever Pakistani women decide best suits them. But our patriarchal society is such a vile mishmash of misinterpreted religious tenets, cultural traditions and tribal customs that when we aren’t telling women what to wear, we are forcing them to march naked in public as recent incidents in Sindh and Punjab have demonstrated yet again.
Yes, yes I have been told before that pessimism is a sin. We are not just talking of half of all humankind. They are half of our own country too — and dare I say the better ones in our case by a mile. So send some optimism my way if you see our attitude towards them changing.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.