Millennium Post

Behind the burqa: Sports and religion

In some countries, sports seem to have religious connotations while in others religion takes precedence over any form of sports. In a country like India, where women sports are gradually coming of age, religion does not matter as much as it does in some other countries.

Recently, Indian shooting champion Heena Sidhu boycotted the Asian Airgun Shooting Championship to be held in Iran this year because female competitors would be forced by law to wear a hijab. She has refused to defend her title in Iran this year stating that ‘it is against the spirit of sports’.

It’s a major blow for the country as Heena has consistently made sure that India wins medals in this category of shooting. She had won the previous edition of the Asians at New Delhi last year. 

This is not the first time Sidhu has withdrawn from a tournament in Iran. In the 2013 edition of the same event, held in Iran, Sidhu had withdrawn saying, “The event in Iran, where  female shooters will have to wear headscarves during the competition will need a different kind of practice. 

I am not used it and to get used to it, I will have to practice for a minimum of three weeks. It will require a special kind of training and time dedicated specifically for it.”

A country like Iran has always been at the center of controversy. Recently, American chess champion Nazi Paikidze decided to highlight the context of making women wear hijab compulsorily in numerous countries for religious reasons.  She also dropped out of the tournament. 

The chess world was divided in its opinion on the issue at stake. Her move has positively highlighted the plight of women in numerous such nations where religion and politics mean the same. 

What cannot be understated is the fact that Nazi’s move has captured the attention of the society at large and it is no wonder that countries like Iran have been ranked quite high in list of the worst countries to live in if you are a woman. Such is the condition there, that it even ranks before reviled countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

In the 2012 Olympic event in London, Saudi Arabia judoka Wojdan Shaherkani was allowed to compete only after a dispute over a hijab was resolved. The International Judo Federation had said the 16-year-old must fight without the headscarf for safety reasons, but the Saudis had threatened to withdraw Shaherkani.

A Saudi official had said that the country’s two female athletes at London 2012 - Shaherkani and 800 m runner Sarah Attar - must obey Islamic dress codes. The federation had to relent. There is almost no public tradition of women participating in sport in Saudi Arabia, who had found it difficult to select athletes for the London Games who had barely met the minimum qualifying standards.

And religious barrier is not only limited to woman athletes but men too have to put their religion ahead of sports willingly or unwillingly. Amir Khan, a British boxer had missed out on a big-money fight against Floyd Mayweather in 2014 because he was observing Ramadan. Khan fasts for 17 hours for 30 consecutive days every year during the holy month and promoters claimed he would not have been able to do a proper training camp during July and then be ready to take on Mayweather in September.

A New Zealand rugby union player Michael Jones, who was a devout Christian, refused to play on Sundays due to his religious beliefs. It meant he missed three games during the 1991 World Cup and was then left out of the 1995 tournament when it became clear he would not be available for both the quarter-final and the semi-final.

In the world of football, Sulley Muntari the Ghanaian footballer was dramatically substituted after just 30 minutes while playing for Inter Milan against Bari in 2009. Manager Jose Mourinho had later claimed Muntari was not fit enough to play, having fasted during the Muslim month of Ramadan.

Nowadays, more women have started participating in sporting events breaking gender as well as religious boundaries. Even though there is a growing participation and presence of women, some people lament that discrimination remains. There are more male than female participants, and some disciplines have more competitions for men and consequently more medals are assigned to men than women.

Perhaps it would be better to admit that this is an issue that has been mostly resolved, at least in countries with a tradition of Christianity. Other voices are calling for a total abolition of “gender discrimination” in competitions so that men and women could compete in the same competitions and so eliminate any differentiation among competitors according to sex. 

The chief cases of religion coming in the way of sports revolve around women in the Middle-East countries as mentioned above. They have to face countless challenges in their efforts to participate in athletics. The hijab is just another obstacle that has hindered many women’s ability to be active.

There has been much resistance and conflict over head covering in athletics over the past few years. The women, however, have fought back and new rulings and changes have brought about new interest and participation in athletics. 

Wearing of the hijab varies considerably according to the country or region of birth, social class, level of education and religious customs of the older generation and the location. Some women cannot even participate in front of men, which is why events such as Women’s Islamic Games have been implemented. There is a very apparent dichotomy between the West and Middle East. These are definitely interesting times where cultures and views clash. 

In a country like Saudi Arabia which had let just two of its athletes participate in the London Olympics, even if women where to abide by religious rules, such as wearing the hijab, the Saudi men have been quoted saying that women that go to the West would be interacting with strangers, wearing pants and exposing their nakedness. They even stated that they would, “much rather have Allah slaughter me before I see that day”. These view points are repulsive.

The hijab is a symbol of Islam, and whether it is a law or worn by choice, it is something that has an effect on Muslim women in many activities, especially athletics. Some feel that the hijab is religious and separate from athletics while others encourage it to promote diversity and acceptance. Times though are gradually changing and it’s high time when religion and sports should be viewed as different entities even though they are intertwined.
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