The curious case of a hijab at the Olympics

I did not know how to feel about the photo of two beach volleyball players - an Egyptian in a long-sleeved shirt and hijab, and a German in a bikini - as they competed at the Olympics. It was undoubtedly a good photo, which went viral and garnered global attention because it carried many interpretations. Some articles and headlines described it as a confrontation between the bikini and hijab.

The attention received by this and other photos of Muslim female participants at the Olympics - some wore the hijab while others wore ordinary sports outfits - seems exaggerated. Discussion went beyond the idea of competition and performance, which are supposed to be the aims of such sports events.

With the photo of the German and Egyptian volleyball players, we found ourselves amid a feminist and rights-related discussion on social media. People stated their opinions based on their status, and religious and identity prejudices. The extent of discussion reflected the idea that women’s bodies are public property.

The bodies of both players were no longer theirs, but the property of those commenting on them. This was also the case with Olympic Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, whose swimsuit dominated her story of athletics and crossing the Aegean Sea as a refugee.

Individual freedoms

The controversy about players’ hijab at the Olympics takes us to a major issue about which we have not yet made up our minds: the extent of individuality regarding women’s wear. When we speak of individual freedoms, we overlook many influencing factors such as education, discipline, history, culture and religion. The decision to wear a hijab or swimsuit is influenced by one’s surroundings.

The controversy about players’ hijab at the Olympics takes us to a major issue about which we have not yet made up our minds: the extent of individuality regarding women’s wear

Diana Moukalled

Life seems narrow when women have to engage in daily battles over what to wear. There is added pressure under patriarchal and religious authorities. This pressure influences personal choices, as it instils fear and imposes prohibitions that, when confronted, may be met with violent reactions and exclusion from family and society.

Massive media interest in photos of Olympic female participants, whether they wear hijab or not, sums up social, political and cultural characteristics. When controversy about rival teams deviates into cultural and political discussion about what female players wear, we must admit that we have a very long and thorny path ahead of us.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Aug. 15, 2016.


Diana Moukalled is the Web Editor at the Lebanon-based Future Television and was the Production & Programming Manager with at the channel. Previously, she worked there as Editor in Chief, Producer and Presenter of “Bilayan al Mujaradah,” a documentary that covers hot zones in the Arab world and elsewhere, News and war correspondent and Local news correspondent. She currently writes a regular column in AlSharq AlAwsat. She also wrote for Al-Hayat Newspaper and Al-Wasat Magazine, besides producing news bulletins and documentaries for Reuters TV. She can be found on Twitter: @dianamoukalled.




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