Gold Medal or Headscarf?: Muslim and Arab Women at the Olympics

Analysis, posted 08.11.2012, from , in:
Gold Medal or Headscarf?: Muslim and Arab Women at the Olympics (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa)

It is the final of the 400-metre hurdles at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984. As a curly-haired runner enters the home straight, she shoots a glance to the left and the right, as if checking to see what has happened to the others. A beaming smile soon replaces her look of incredulity as she realises that she has beaten off the competition. Even before she crosses the finishing line, the smallest runner in the field throws her arms up in the air to celebrate her victory. The Moroccan Nawal El Moutawakel has won the gold medal. She has also made history, becoming the first Arab African Muslim woman to become an Olympic champion.

That was 28 years ago. Today, El Moutawakel is a vice president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and is considered a likely candidate to succeed current IOC President Jacques Rogge. She is one of three women on the 15-strong executive board. At the opening ceremony in London, Rogge celebrated the fact that, for the first time in Olympic history, "all the participating teams will have female athletes," and proclaimed this "a major boost for gender equality." Three of the 204 countries participating in the Olympics – the Arab states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Sultanate of Brunei – sent women for the first time, seven of them in all.

As Rogge spoke, the cameras turned to the two headscarf-wearing female Saudi athletes, who, if the media are to be believed, are "the symbols of these games" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): judoka Wojdan Shahrkhani and 800-metre runner Sarah Attar. Wojdan's subsequent 82-second defeat brought her more media attention than many an Olympic champion, while she expressed the hope that she would "be a star for women's participation." Attar didn't have a hope of winning either (her personal best is 2:40) and consoled herself with the hope that she had helped "make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport."

Headscarves with Velcro fastenings

All of this has very little to do with top-class sport. As far as the IOC was concerned, the neat statistic of women's participation was the most important thing. In order to achieve this, a number of so-called wildcards were distributed among female athletes, exempting them from normal qualifying criteria and enabling them to represent their countries as sporting ambassadors. The representational role thus pushed the competitive sports element into the background. Not only does this create the impression that quantity is more important than quality in women's sports and the really "great" achievements are in any case reserved for men such as Wiggins, Phelps and Bolt. It also says that, three decades after El Moutawakel's gold medal, female Arab athletes, for whom "taking part" (i.e. elimination in the first round) is the ultimate experience, are once more being portrayed as exotic sporting rarities.

Moreover, the representational aspect can become problematic, if, for example, the hijab-wearing athletes find themselves being requisitioned, not only in the service of the Olympic ideal, but also for the political purposes of the country they are representing. Thus the idea that Arab sportswomen are something exotic is confirmed in two ways: through the celebrations of the IOC and the world's press over the participation of the two Saudi athletes and by the insistence on the part of Saudi National Olympic Committee (NOC) that they must wear headscarves.


By Manfred Sing; Translated by Ron Walker

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