The 2012 London Summer Olympic Games will be the first in which all the represented countries will include women on their Olympic teams. But for one country, what seems like a victory against gender discrimination in public life is actually not. Instead, it's a thinly veiled continuation of the status quo.

Ibitihaj Muhammad, the 25-year-old, sabre-wielding, three-time National College Athletic Association All-American fencer is preparing to represent the United States in the London 2012 Olympic Games. She also happens to be a practicing Muslim, and will be competing with her headscarf neatly tucked about her chin. This makes her the first Muslim athlete to represent the US while wearing a headscarf, ever.

Denise Muhammad, Ibiti's mother, encouraged Ibiti and her four siblings (three girls, one boy) to play sports from a young age, especially the sisters. She says that organized sports not only strengthen the body and the mind, they also give Muslim children the chance to socialize and enjoy themselves with other kids their age, and be accepted by their teammates. Ibiti began with tennis, track and field, swimming and volleyball. Although she succeeded in all of these, none of them would be able to offer the level of acceptance that Ibiti found in fencing.

Both Denise and her daughter tell the same story, the story of how Ibiti got into fencing. When she was 13, Ibiti and her mother were driving by a high school and happened to see fully covered girls stretching and warming up for practice. Denise turned to Ibiti and said, "I don't know what that is, but when you get to high school, I want you to do that."

At the time, Ibiti was playing volleyball, and, as with all of the other sports that her children played, Denise would fashion garments that they could wear to practice while still observing their faith. For volleyball, Ibiti would don sweatpants and a long sleeve tee, sticking out like a sore thumb from the rest of her spandex clad teammates. But when she fences, she hits the strip and her dress is no different than any other competitor's. The focus is on the sport, and not her dress.

Last year, she spent Ramadan at a high altitude training camp in Colorado: "Being Muslim is a part of my life, and, you know, fencing, I work into it."

Ibiti has had much success as a fencer, student and now inspirational body, but it is obvious that she faces many obstacles. She worries that some referees may refer to her race or her creed when they make point by point decisions. Ibiti is still stopped in the airport and has once before been told to leave the airport if she refused to remove her headscarf. Her mother worries about fencing etiquette, such as players shaking hands with the (often male) referee before beginning a match, and that Ibiti will travel alone during most of the Games.

Something, however, that they are not worrying about is the fact that the 2012 Olympic Games will take place entirely during the month of Ramadan. Ibiti has dealt with this obstacle before. Last year when she spent Ramadan at a high altitude training camp in Colorado, Ibiti was on a diet of peanut butter, bananas, yogurt and was all but ordered to raid the fridge at night. Unable to eat or drink during the day, Ibiti would wake up every hour and a half to hydrate. When asked about her plans for Ramadan and the Olympics, Ibiti seems only minimally concerned. In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, she said that "fasting is a part of my life. Being Muslim is a part of my life, and, you know, fencing, I work into it, but I wouldn't fence if it hindered, you know, me practicing my religion in any way." Ibiti does not see her sport as getting in the way of her faith, flying in the face of a view that many Koranic interpreters and religious outsiders alike espouse as a reason that Muslim women should not be allowed to participate in sports (among many other social practices).

Faith-based gender discrimination in sports has become a large, contentious global issue in the past few months, as Saudi Arabia announced its continued refusal to submit to the International Olympic Committee's mandate that all countries wishing to participate include women on their Olympic teams. According to IOC's charter, "The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind... Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement." In June, the Saudi Embassy in London reported that Saudi Arabia had pledged to send women to London who "qualify" for the Games, which is interesting given that in the past, no Saudi women had ever participated in Olympic qualifier events.

The International Olympic Committee was then told that no women qualified for the 2012 Games. From the Prince Nawaf al-Faisal, the head of the Saudi National Olympic Committee, "at present, we are not embracing any female Saudi participation in the Olympics or other international championships." In mid-June, Saudi Arabia made headlines in most major news publications byannouncing that Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani would be among the Saudi representatives marching in the Parade of Nations and participating in the 2012 Games. Curiously though, it appears that no Saudi news outlets reported the news. Can you say "media blackout?"

Given that this is a decision that could be used in Saudi Arabia as an example of continued forward social movement, the fact that the Saudi state is trying to cover up this news sends a powerful message to the international community: allowing the two Saudi females to compete in London is a cop out, they are last minute entries sent to keep the IOC from barring Saudi Arabian participation and represent a move to shake the various human rights groups that are targeting this issue.

Both Sarah Attar, a 17-year-old 800m sprinter at Pepperdine University in California, and Ali Shahrkhani, a 16-year-old judoka, reside outside of the Saudi Kingdom and are not well known in the Kingdom, Attar wasn't even born there. Before finalizing their membership on the Olympic team, both had to sign a pledge to comply with three provisions, as outlined by Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee leader and the Saudi Minister of Youth and Sport, Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal, in a recent interview with Al-Jazirah. "Firstly, they must wear the appropriate outfits. Secondly, their guardians must approve their participation and be present with them. Thirdly, that they do not mix with men, and finally, they and their guardians must pledge not to violate the three aforementioned conditions."

Since signing this pledge, it has been noticed that many photos of Attar have been removed from the internet. Apparently, she did not compete in full observance of the faith, which she will now be required to do in London. Even more recently, The International Judo Federation has announcedthat it will not allow Olympic competitors to participate while wearing a headscarf, citing safety as the reason for the decision. As a direct result of this ruling, Shahrkhani will not be able to observe the first of the three provisions that Prince Faisal outlined for the young ladies. Will Shahrkhani still be able to represent Saudi Arabia in the London Games?

Prior to this Olympic debacle, gender discrimination issues in the Saudi kingdom had taken the backburner to issues that revealed themselves as the Arab Spring began to boil over. I don't know if the Kingdom realizes this or not, but they are attempting to use a flimsy ballerina BandAid to cover up a festering wound. Says Mona Abass, a political analyst interviewed by the New York Times, "it does not change the fact that Saudi women are not free to move and to choose. The Saudis may use it to boost their image, but it changes little." What Abass means by "not free to move and to choose" is that Saudi Arabia Muslim women are not allowed to drive cars (see the NY Times piece on random acts of women driving) and they are not allowed to have surgery or leave the countrywithout approval of a male guardian. A male guardian can be any male related by blood, including a son.

"International sporting organisations should resist bending their own rules to accommodate Islamist countries that legislate against women's rights."

In the past few months, there have been many reports detailing the intricacies of the gender-backwards state of Saudi Arabia. At this point, too much has been revealed and the wound smells fishy. Among the most offensive odors being aired leaks from a finding that women and girls are effectively banned from sports in school, have no public venues for practising sports and that the only private company with a women's team must practice in private. The Human Rights Watch has beenprofiling female sports participation in Saudi Arabia for the past 10 months. Cristophe Wilke, a representative from the Human Rights Watch group that wrote thereport, writes that "Allowing women to compete under the Saudi flag in the London Games will set an important precedent, but without policy changes to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within the kingdom, little can change for millions of women and girls deprived of sporting opportunities."

Wilke, I believe, makes the most important point out of all of the commentators and analysts who are concerned with this issue. The late-entries of two Saudi Arabia girls, one of which was born and raised in California, both of which did not officially qualify for the Olympics and are yet to be confirmed on the London Olympics official roster page are so shady that I hesitate to call them legitimate participants. So many rules had to be broken, and many little lies told, to get these young ladies to the 2012 Olympic Games. When I crossed my fingers hoping that Saudi Arabia would send women to the 2012 Games, I was hoping for figures like Ibiti Muhammad, who is a world-class athlete showing the world that sports and observance of Islam are not incompatible. What we are now being presented with are two young women who are citizens of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia competing at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games under the Saudi flag, without officially qualifying or undergoing intensive training programs. I am, and we should all be, very aware that this changes little for the women of Saudi Arabia, and that what changes do come will do so slowly and with much hostility.

Ida Lichler, author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression, writes that "international sporting organisations should, at least, resist bending their own rules to accommodate Islamist countries that legislate against women's rights. The real hurdles are entrenched, archaic traditions authorised by religion and legislated in state politics." By many accounts, the Olympics Games are becoming increasingly political; they are a sort of sound system, amplifying those static tensions between nations as they brush elbows on a "depoliticized" international stage. President Bush and President Putin in the 2008 Beijing Olympics come to mind. So hows about this time around we shed the niceties and just say it outright? The fact that Saudi Arabia is sending two female Saudis to the 2012 Summer Olympics is naught but a political ploy to satiate the IOC's mandate on female participate. It does not mean a significant move forward for women's right in the Kingdom and required so much rule-bending on both the IOC and Saudi sides that it cannot be held legitimate and should not be represented as such.

It is easy enough to write an article or a report being critical of a largely theatrical political play, it is easy to be very critical in one's own opinions - it is something that many news outlets and opinionators have done in the recent weeks. It is quite something else to follow that story through, even after the Olympics end, and hold a country accountable for that action. While it is a nice token to have women participating under the Saudi flag, the real issue at hand is the inability for Saudi women to participate in sports within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If they experience no change in gender participation in sports, then Saudi Arabia should not be allowed to participate in future Games until it can legitimately demonstrate that the right to sport is not withheld on the basis of gender or faith for any of Saudi Arabia's citizens.

About the Author

S. Garrity Guenther studied psychology and gender at the New School University and wants to work in international finance--for this week at least. She'll keep you posted. She likes bikes, books, nerdy psych articles and the idea of Python. She owns one matching pair of socks, which she won't hesitate to shove in your face if you try to tell her what to do. Oh, and she makes good cookies. Really good cookies.


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Muslim Women in the Olympics

By S. Garrity Guenther //
July 27, 2012 //
Essay //

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