When Doaa Elghobashy stepped out onto the Olympic beach volleyball court this week, was it her skill the world noticed, or her technique that was critiqued?
No, it was the fact that she was dressed in a hijab and full body suit, while her German opponents wore bikinis, that made the headlines.
Meanwhile US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history this week - why? Again it wasn’t her stride or some new technology she was bringing to the sport of fencing. Apparently she was the first hijab-wearing Muslim American woman to take part in the Olympics.
I’m not going to bog myself down with the debate surrounding the rights and wrongs of whether women should cover. Nor will I dwell on if the hijab in some way represents the oppression of women – not yet.
Suffice to say that none of the female competitors in the Olympics seem particularly oppressed to me.
The Olympic games - I thought - was supposed to be a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith and apolitical competition, in which people joined with a common purposePeter Harrison
The Olympic games - I thought - was supposed to be a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith and apolitical competition, in which people joined with a common purpose. It seems sad then that the focus of these women was not on their efforts in their chosen disciplines, but the fact that they were veiled.
British newspaper the Daily Mail devoted an entire article to the Egyptian women’s beach volleyball team and their attire under the headline “The cover-ups versus the cover-nots” and referred to a ‘massive cultural divide between Western and Islamic women's teams’.
Even the more moderate Independent website, when reporting on Egyptian weightlifter, Sara Ahmed as the first Arab woman to win an Olympic medal, eventually referred to her outfit.
The article read: “Ahmed competed wearing a full-length unitard and sport’s hijab”. It added that this followed a ruling in 2011 allowing women to wear longer garments.
Is hijab coverage really a surprise?
But should we really be surprised at the amount of attention given to these women’s clothes over their achievements? Probably not. In 2011 just moments before the Iranian women’s football team were about to play Jordan in a London 2012 qualifier, they were told by FIFA officials that their hijabs were not permitted.
They of course did not remove their headscarves, and as a result had to forfeit the match. The following year FIFA decided to lift the ban, and allow veiled women to compete.
Society seems to have got itself torn between the notion that Muslims are either terrorists or oppressed - no one has considered the majority that are in fact simply moderatesPeter Harrison
Women have been judged for centuries based on their looks and what they wear, that is indisputable. But being Muslim seems to add fuel to that already towering inferno when they wear certain items of clothing.
It seems quite ironic then that those who decry the hijab as a sign of oppression to women, are surely oppressing the very same women they seek to protect by failing to establish whether those people have made a personal choice to cover up.
Society seems to have got itself torn between the notion that Muslims are either terrorists or oppressed - no one has considered the majority that are in fact simply moderates.
Just an article of clothing or a symbol?
Away from the sporting arena this week David Lisnard , the mayor of Cannes banned full body swimsuits known as ‘burkinis’ from the southern French town’s beach citing public order concerns. Mayor Lisnard said the outfits were a ‘symbol of Islamic extremism’ which might cause public unrest.
It is worth asking yourself if, in the unlikely event that an Amish family arrived in Cannes and started bathing fully covered - as they do - would they attract so much attention? Or indeed find themselves being escorted off the beach?
Last year European Muslim journalist Hanna Yusuf discussed the issue of why the headscarf was seen as the epitome of oppression. She raised the issue that the value of a woman was reduced to their ‘sexual allure’ and she said their empowerment could therefore best be gained by covering up.
Yusuf also suggested the hijab was a ‘simple piece of clothing’ - this is something I don’t agree with. But that does not negate her argument that women who wear it through choice are not being oppressed.
I have known several women who chose to cover and are no more oppressed or threat to society than I would consider myself to be. They are news editors at radio stations, website editors, MBA students and owners of highly successful websites, to mention just a few.
I know other women who are not covered who are also highly successful. Their achievements lay not with what they wear, but the hard work and determination they have shown to succeed.
Surely these are qualities we should recognize in everyone, irrespective of whether they are male or female, covered or not?
And when that’s someone who has made it into the Olympics – the world’s biggest sporting arena - then shouldn’t we be in awe, congratulating them for this achievement, rather than focusing on the clothes they wear?
Peter Harrison is a British photojournalist who has worked for print, digital and broadcast media in the UK and the UAE. He's covered everything from farming in the south west of England, to the war in Afghanistan. He is a senior journalist with Al Arabiya English.
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