In 1974, the Iranian national women’s volleyball team competed in the well-recognized volleyball ensemble—shorts and a t-shirt—with their hair uncovered. Today they compete, heads covered, in long-sleeved jerseys and long pants.
Fartun Osman ran track and played on the Somali women’s national basketball team in the late 1980s, prior to emigrating to the U.S., wearing what she described as “short shorts.” Now living in St. Paul, Minn., and coaching a girls soccer team with a number of Somalis, Fartun and her athletes cover their hair, arms, and legs.
When Moroccan Nawal El Moutawakel won the 400 meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympics—the first woman from a Muslim-majority nation to win an Olympic gold medal—she broke barriers by not only competing at an elite level, but also by wearing what most elite track athletes wore at the time—briefs and a singlet, hair uncovered. She was hailed as a pioneer who “allowed female athletes from other Arabic and Muslim countries to go beyond traditions and prejudice, and show their talents.”
Thirty-two years later, in Rio, an American Muslim woman named Dalilah Muhammad won a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles wearing what most elite track athletes wear—briefs and a cropped top, hair uncovered.
So it seemed odd that the media overwhelmingly focused on Ibtihaj Muhammad, a U.S. fencer who wears a hijab underneath the normal head-to-toe fencing uniform. Muhammad’s story saturated the media. “I’m hoping that just my presence on Team USA changes the misconceptions that people have about the Muslim community,” she said. She was on TV, magazines, newspapers, and websites as the face of the progressive Muslim.
A long story in the Washington Post with the equally long headline—“Muslim female athletes find sport so essential they compete while covered”—seemed to ignore the fact that 30 years ago a fair number of Muslim women competed uncovered. The loudest message coming out of Rio was that covering allowed Muslim women to compete, and that this was a sign of progress. There were lots of images of athletes wearing hijab, as if there was no alternative.
It was only a stray tweet that alerted me to the fact that Dalilah Muhammad is a practicing Muslim. Here was a woman who exercised her right not to cover, who provided an example of how her religion can be compatible with her sport, who won a gold medal uncovered, and very little was broadcast about her achievement as a sign of progress for Muslim women.
Ironically, mainstream media did not hail Dalilah as a symbol of progress for Muslim women simply because she looked like every other woman in her event. Most reporters didn’t know she was Muslim because she didn’t look Muslim, i.e. she didn’t cover her hair, arms or legs. And that seems like actual, real progress.
Some in the Muslim community, tuned in to clues like her last name, may have been silent on Dalilah’s victory for a different reason. A Muslim woman accomplishing something great, on a world stage, while wearing very little, challenges more conservative interpretations of Islam, which have gained steam in some countries where women were competing freely 40 years ago.
Author and Muslim reform advocate Asra Nomani tweeted a picture of Dalilah in action with the words: “An awesome sight: A Muslim woman, wind in her hair, air on her skin, free of any fatwa.” One responder to Nomani’s tweet asked why Dalilah was not a “hero.”
At the blog Muslim Girl, Jennah Haque wondered, “Why is that when veiled women like Ibtihaj Muhammad or Sara Ahmed gets to stand on the podium we can’t control our excitement, but when a non-hijbai like Dalilah Muhammad wins, the crowd goes silent? A Muslim woman won gold at the olympics. As aforementioned in the Holy Qur’an, it’s our job to cheer on all of our kind, no matter what they choose to wear.”
At The Islamic Monthly, a writer described discovering Dalilah was Muslim by accident, and hypothesized why an Olympic gold medal winner might be overlooked:
Ibtihaj seemed to be filling my news feeds for months. But Dalilah I only happened to stumble upon with one or two tweets or posts at random. And for the most part, my newsfeed was silent about her before she competed and after. To me, it seems obvious. Imagine if she wore a hijab and ran. The storyline would change, the fanfare dramatically shift. Isn’t it ironic that we play into hijab by actually drawing more attention to it when someone does something with it on? Shouldn’t we as Muslims be at a point now where hijab or no hijab is a nonissue?
I, too, wondered how a gold medal-winning, inspirational Muslim athlete could manage to be so invisible wearing a standard-issue track uniform. So, I spoke with Dalilah by phone from her home in California.
“My religion doesn’t define who I am as a person,” she said. “I didn’t go into the Olympics trying to be the face of Muslim women. Then, you don’t stand out for your athleticism; you become a Muslim athlete rather than just an athlete. For me, I’ve been doing [track] for so long, being an athlete is who I am, it’s what I want to represent. It’s not a secret that I’m Muslim, it’s just that I don’t represent that on the track. Religion is personal to me, just as you couldn’t tell what religion the other women in my race were.”
Muhammad grew up in New York City, in what she described as a liberal Muslim household. Her father is an imam in Queens, and her mother, Muhammad said, sometimes used to cover but doesn’t now.
“I was into sports at any early age—I joined a track club at age 7—and that was who I was,” she said. “In track, we wore shorts and didn’t cover arms, legs, or hair. For me, that was a personal choice. I didn’t cover on the track or off. My parents were very supportive of my decision.
“There was a time when I was younger that my dad was a little hesitant. ‘You know you have to wear that uniform,’ he said when we saw elite women competing. But as I got older, he accepted the fact that I was really talented and this is who I am, and has been 100 percent supportive. He was very accepting of my personal choice. Some [Muslim] girls start covering up more at 16. It’s supposed to be a choice, but at 16...a lot depends on your environment. A girl can be influenced by her environment. I was heavy into athletics and I’d already done really well. That was my environment and that’s what influenced my choice.”
Muhammad said she never received criticism from the Muslim community for not covering—partly because, she said, the U.S.-born Muslim community is more liberal than some overseas—and partly because she identified very early as an athlete.
While covering isn’t a choice for women in conservative cultures like Saudi Arabia, hijab proponents argue that—particularly for Muslim women in the U.S. and Europe—covering is a choice akin to any other style of dress. But as Muhammad’s experience indicates, the choice isn’t made in a vacuum. The Iranian women’s volleyball team’s choice to wear shorts in 1974 was in line with the country’s pre-Revolutionary mores, and the choice by the 2016 team to cover is similarly a product of its time.
At the Olympic level, athletes make important decisions about training, nutrition, lifestyle, and gear to help them perform at their very best. Though the Qur’an provides guidelines for men to dress modestly too, British distance runner Mo Farah, a practicing Muslim, chooses shorts and a singlet that allow maximum freedom of movement and air flow. It also shows a lot of skin. Farah is dressed like every other runner in his races and his “immodesty” is rarely, if ever, questioned.
I asked Muhammad if she thought she could compete and run as fast as if she wore a hijab, long sleeves, and tights.
“That’s a difficult question. Personally, I don’t think I’d feel as comfortable,” she said. “But then, I’ve never covered. Anything can be done if you really want to. I can’t speak for other athletes, but it seems like if you were used to covering in everyday life, there’s no reason you would take it off while competing. If that’s what they grew up doing, they don’t know any different. For those women, like the Egyptian beach volleyball players, it’s not a challenge. They can do what other women can do, covered.”
Certainly, the life-changing benefits of participation in sports can be experienced by abaya-clad women. But the most restrictive dress codes go hand-in-hand with nations that do not have historic or well-funded women’s sports programs, and that sometimes discourage women from participating in sports at all. It is no coincidence that the Muslim women who medaled at the Rio Olympics are mostly from countries that (to varying degrees) support women’s athletics and aren’t as hardline on covering, and that these women won wearing the standard uniforms of their sport.
Dalilah Muhammad allowed that her choice to not cover may have contributed to not being championed as a barrier-breaking example by both mainstream media and the Muslim community. But for different reasons.
“No one [at NBC or IOC] asked if I was Muslim,” she said. “Maybe they couldn’t tell by what I was wearing. A few Muslim organizations have celebrated my accomplishments; those that haven’t ... it may come back to the fact that I don’t fully embrace traditional Muslim values of women covering their arms and legs. That could be a reason.”
While Dalilah Muhammad didn’t seek, nor receive, much attention as an example for Muslim women, it’s impossible to be invisible with an Olympic gold medal around your neck. The image below shows real progress for Muslim athletes.