This is the story of two Olympians wearing hijabs. One is U.S. fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is one of the faces of these Olympics, and a vocal stereotype piercer for black Muslim women. The other is Sarah Attar, an under-the-radar Californian who will cover her head, arms, and legs when she competes for Saudi Arabia in the marathon this weekend.
The 30-year-old Muhammad—who lost in the round of 16 in the individual sabre but will compete later in the team sabre competition—has been featured in seemingly every major media outlet, as the first Muslim American woman to compete in the Olympics in a hijab.
“I’m hoping that just my presence on Team USA changes the misconceptions that people have about the Muslim community,” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “When I think of my predecessors, people who have spoken out against bigotry and hate, I feel I owe it not just to myself, but to my community to try to fight it.”
Muhammad is talking about the current political climate, in which the leader of one of America’s two major political parties wants to ban Muslims from traveling or emigrating to the U.S. Growing up in an observant Muslim family in New Jersey, she wore a hijab that covered her hair and neck, as well as long sleeves and pants under her uniform while participating in a round robin of sports—volleyball, softball, basketball, swimming.
The now oft-told story is that when Muhammad was 13, she and her mother were driving by their local high school where they saw fencers practicing, covered head to toe. Her mother said to her, “I don’t know what that is, but when you get to high school, you’re doing it.”
Muhammad says that at first she didn’t love fencing; it was simply the one sport she could participate in without looking different. The kit fit the precepts of her faith, and her mom was on board.
Early on, when a referee decided against her or a competitor was rude, Muhammad’s first instinct was to think it had something to do with being black in an overwhelmingly white sport. But black Olympic fencer Peter Westbrook warned her not to allow conceptions of race or religion to affect her. “I have to remember my purpose,” she said.
Muhammad’s mother, Denise, exemplifies the ever-present push and pull between religion and culture. “You feel the pride,” she said about her daughter competing in a World Cup fencing event, “Muslim women are struggling around the world. She’s not on the front lines but when she stands up there, she’s making her mark for them, for freedom, to have their voices heard.”
At the same time, she’s bothered that fencing requires her daughter to shake hands with male referees and travel without a male guardian.
At about the same time Muhammad started receiving national attention, in early 2012, across the country Pepperdine University art student and middle distance runner Sarah Attar made her first Olympic team without even trying. In fact, she didn’t know what Olympic event she’d be competing in until a few weeks before the opening ceremony.
Born and raised in California, Attar has dual citizenship from her Saudi father and American mother. She travels to Saudi Arabia about once a year to visit relatives.
After Qatar and Brunei caved to IOC pressure to include women athletes in their Olympic delegation, Saudi Arabia was the sole remaining country not to include them. That ultra-conservative country was feeling the heat, especially when the IOC said their entrants need not meet Olympic qualifying standards.
Attar appeared at just the right time, having run the Big Sur Marathon in late April 2012 in a credible, but nowhere near Olympic, 3:30:40. The IOC invited Attar to compete for Saudi Arabia, one of two women representing that country at the Olympics for the first time. Only after accepting the invitation did she discover she’d be running the 800 meters.
“There almost wasn’t time to have hesitation about it,” Attar told RunnersWorld. “How could I not do something like this and make a difference.”
But to compete for Saudi Arabia, her American image required some airbrushing. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, her family was instructed by the IOC to decline interview requests, and photos of Attar in her usual attire, hair uncovered, were removed from the internet, including photos on Pepperdine’s track and cross country website. “On Friday, the West Coast Conference added a story about Attar to the home page of its website. It included a big picture of her running cross country last fall, in tight white shorts and a blue tank top, her pony tail bouncing behind her. A few hours later, it was gone, too.”
Attar competed in London in a head-and-neck covering she and her mom fashioned, long sleeves and long pants. Though she finished last in her heat, Attar received a standing ovation. “It’s a huge honor to have represented Saudi Arabia in such a way and to promote a sport I love and hopefully encourage others to participate in it,” she told RunnersWorld.
Competing in the Olympics changed Attar’s life. She graduated from Pepperdine, took up landscape photography, and moved to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to train full-time with a group of elite distance runners. Last year, she signed with women’s athletic wear company Oiselle.
Attar described to the Washington Post the changes she’s seen in her annual visits to Saudi Arabia, saying in 2011 she tried to go for a run, dressed as a boy. “It was literally, like, five minutes into the run. A car full of 20-something-year-old guys pulls up next to me and starts yelling at me. They were saying, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ You know, stuff like that. So then we were kind of done after that.”
In a 2015 visit, Attar and her sister went for a run wearing abayas—long, loose robes—unmolested, and were encouraged by new walking paths and the sight of men and abaya-clad women walking and running together.
She also talked about the Saudi Running Collective, a somewhat revolutionary running group with about 120 members, eight of whom are women. Members of the collective asked the Post not to use their last names “because of the unusual nature of the club in Saudi culture.” One woman, a mother of four and former smoker, said running had changed her life, gave her “a great feeling of freedom, of accomplishment,” and made her a happier person.
As ever, there are incremental positive changes for women in Saudi Arabia, including the right to vote and run for municipal office for the first time. But according to the Associated Press, little has changed with regard to women’s public attire and participation in sports:
They [Saudi women] cannot be seen by men while jogging in sweat pants, much less wearing fitted or revealing shorts. Most women in Saudi Arabia cover their hair and face with a veil known as the niqab and all women are required to wear a loose black dress known as the abaya in public.
For Saudi women, participating in sports is an act of defiance in a country where female access to exercise is outright shunned by ultra-conservatives.
Physical education is not on the curriculum for girls in Saudi public schools. However, private female-only gyms and sports clubs are growing in popularity in the country’s major cities.
Attar has been training for the marathon, setting a personal best of 3:11 at the 2015 Chicago Marathon. That’s good, but still 26 minutes off of the Olympic qualifying time. Throughout her two years of full-time training, there was no guarantee that she’d get another invitation to compete for Saudi Arabia. That invitation did finally come, as in 2012, just eight weeks before the opening ceremony.
The 2016 Saudi Olympic contingent includes four women: Attar; Kariman Abuljadayel, a sprinter; Joud Fahmy, a judoka; and Lubna Al-Omair, a fencer. Three of the four women, including Attar, train in the United States because they are students, the AP article says, though Attar is no longer a student and has lived in the U.S. her entire life. All four women received wild card entries in which qualifying marks were waived.
Attar, training with coach Andrew Kastor, hit a max of 86 miles per week in preparation for the Olympic marathon. She said her training has been more about staying injury-free and fit, rather than heat tolerance. She’ll run the 26.2 miles in Rio this Sunday fully covered, but she’s not as concerned about setting a PR or being competitive as about being a role model for Saudi girls and women. “In the West, people tend to see covering as oppressive, but in the Kingdom, it’s very much like us putting on a jacket,” she told RunnersWorld. “Many women take pride in it and it aligns with their religious values.”
But critics see Attar’s participation—a woman who was born, lives, and trains in the U.S., without a hijab or an abaya—as enabling Saudi Arabia to use the Olympics as a veneer of social change without actually changing anything. “The presence of female athletes [in the 2012 Olympics] made things worse, because it allowed Saudi Arabia to escape criticism,” Saudi scholar Ali Al-Ahmed told Quartz.
And Hosam al-Qurashi, executive director of the Saudi Olympic Committee, did not speak directly about women’s programs, telling the Associated Press, “The Saudi sports system is going through a major reformation. Our strategy is we want to build athletes that qualify for the Olympics.” That’s much harder for women when they are “denied access to state sports infrastructure,” as a recent Human Rights Watch report noted.
Attar sees her American freedoms as a unique opportunity, almost a responsibility, to show the world, and specifically Saudi girls, that sports are a possibility for them. “I feel my story speaks to the value of the Olympic creed of the importance of participation over winning, of global connectivity,” she told RunnersWorld. “I feel part of Saudi and it’s part of me. It’s like growing up here in the States allowed me to represent Saudi and the growth of women’s sport.”
There are other hijab-wearing athletes competing at the Olympics, but regardless how one feels about that symbolic bit of cloth—and opinions differ vastly—it allows more women to participate in sports, and that is a definite victory.
But a number of questions remain. Is Muhammad truly breaking stereotypes given that she chose fencing in part because athletes compete fully covered? Can a woman who lives and trains in the U.S. provide inspiration for Saudi girls who do not? Which causes are truly advanced by the Olympics, and which causes are forgotten as soon as it ends?
History provides us a final little wrinkle regarding social change and female Muslim athletes. The first woman from a Muslim-majority country to win an Olympic medal was Moroccan Nawal El Moutawakel, who won the 400-meter hurdles in Los Angeles in 1984.
She competed wearing briefs and a singlet.