I wear, therefore I am: Women athletes at Rio

Sunday 21/08/2016
Egyptian taekwondo practitioner Hedaya Malak Wahba reacts to her Olympic bronze medal win during the Rio games, on August 18th.

When Egypt’s female team played beach volleyball against a German team in the Rio do Janeiro Olympic games, media focus was on a supposed “clash of cultures” due to the differences in the players’ clothing. The Egyptians wore headscarves, long sleeves and leggings; their German rivals wore bikinis.
“The cover-ups versus the cover-nots: Egyptian and German beach volleyball players high­light the massive cultural divide between Western and Islamic women’s teams,” the right-wing British newspaper the Daily Mail said.
Fewer saw it as, in the words of Hend Amry, who tweets @ LibyaLiberty, just “athlete vs athlete”. Even fewer bothered to point out that not all female athletes in Muslim-majority countries wear the hijab.
Across the Atlantic, this “cultural divide” was not between East and West but within the United States itself.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton celebrated in a tweet that: “In Rio, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American Muslim athlete to compete while wearing a hijab.”
Her tweet was not appreciated by right-wing political commen­tator Rush Limbaugh, who asked his widely followed radio show audience: “For crying out loud, did she win?… Why celebrate a woman wearing something that’s been forced on her by a religion? A religion run by men.”
The irony is that Limbaugh does not care about what Ibtihaj Muhammad thinks or believes. The African-Ameri­can woman, whom Time magazine included in its 2016 list of the 100 most influential people, told the BBC that she was “excited to challenge the stereotypes and misconcep­tions people have about Muslim women”. Her words seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
Unfortunately, however, Muslim women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are stuck in a deadlock of local stereotypes. Female athletes who were not wearing “modest” outfits were subjected to harsh criticism from conservative compatriots.
Instead of cheering Tunisian 3,000m steeplechase runner Habiba Ghribi for representing their country at the Olympics, Islamist-leaning commentators bashed her for showing too much skin. Other commentators piled abuse on Ghribi for finishing 12th in the race, which she won at the 2012 Olympics in London, prompting Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to call her and express support.
Another controversy erupted when Tunisian fencing bronze medallist Ines Boubakri, who had dedicated her medal to Arab women, kissed her French husband in public after her performance.
Many expressed support for the two Tunisian athletes but the online debate quickly descended into “Islamists versus secular­ists”, in which both camps were more concerned with scoring ideological points than about women, sports or the nation.
Public opinion was divided over Libya’s only female swim­mer competing at the Rio Olym­pics, 17-year-old Daniah Hagul. Many conservatives were not happy with her wearing only a swimsuit. Others were proud to see a Libyan woman take part in the international games.
Controversy over how revealing women’s clothing appears to be universal. BBC presenter Helen Skelton came under fire for wearing a “short” skirt while reporting on the swimming competition at Rio. Commenta­tors on Twitter speculated whether she had forgotten to wear her trousers or if she had underwear on.
Western media coverage of what female athletes wear or on their lifestyles often appears to take a misogynist direction as their male counterparts do not face the same scrutiny. These prompted activists to launch Cover the Athlete, a campaign in which male athletes were asked titillating personal, non-sports-related questions. The same type of questions that female athletes are often subjected to.
There is no doubt that female athletes from all over the world are subjected to social/legal pressures to wear more or wear less. Sometimes that pressure comes from other women. However, what the focus should be on is ways to increase and improve women’s participation in sports.