Stereotypes, such as Muslim women being passive to their male counterparts or “oppressed”, linger within our modern discourse. Unfortunately, these biases are further maintained by the lack of nuanced representation.
Film and television often present Muslim women as being “oppressed” by their culture, silent and forced to wear the Hijab. Yet within the world of sports, Hijabi athletes are more prominent than ever.
These athletes are redefining their respective fields in terms of the “traditional” notion of Muslims and female athletes.
Ibtihaj Muhammad, an American sabre fencer, made history by becoming the first Muslim-American woman to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab.
In a conversation with Ellen Degeneres, the famous fencer recounted how her family was drawn to the sport of fencing due to the sport’s conservative uniform of long pants and sleeves, allowing Muhammad to be athletic while observing the Muslim code of modesty.
As a proud African-American Muslim woman, Ibtihaj Muhammad is an advocate for the recognition of diversity in today’s society. She constantly challenges any limitations associated with her gender, race, and religious affiliation.
In an interview with The Guardian, Muhammad counters preconceptions associated with her identity. She argued against the idea,
“that someone is forcing me to wear this hijab…That I’m oppressed. That I don’t have a voice.
I remember being told that I shouldn’t fence as a kid because I was black, and it’s like why? I want to fence, and this is what I want to do.”
Another athlete changing the game is Zahra Lari, a figure skater from the United Arab Emirates who drew massive media attention for competing during competitions with the hijab on.
Competing in a sport not normally known for “conservative” attire, Lari faced challenges wearing her headscarf on the ice, having points marked down in her first international competition as it was not approved by the competition’s set costume regulations.
However, today, Lari is challenging these regulations, working with Nike to develop the Nike Pro hijab, designed for athletes like herself to compete freely while maintaining hijab. Lari, as the first figure skater from the UAE to compete internationally, hopes to inspire other Muslim girls to compete in sports.
In an interview with The Mary Sue, founders of the Riz Test, a test measuring the portrayal of Muslims on film and television, the founders quoted,
“There is no nuance when it comes to Muslims. Instead, we are highly likely to be portrayed as one dimensional… the Muslim women are seen as oppressed veiled victims.”
While fictional media currently lacks enough positive portrayals to counteract this negativity, there are real-life heroes like Ibtihaj Muhammad. Through their international recognition, hijabi athletes are fighting to showcase Muslim women’s resilience and power in the face of prejudice.
To paraphrase Rumi, these women “are the universe in ecstatic motion.”
They continue to change the idea of what Muslim women can do and how they are seen.