Norway’s women’s beach handball team being fined for wearing shorts instead of bikinis is the latest example of sexism in sport. But the lack of outrage for Muslim and racialised female atheltes should not escape us.
Women in sport have limitless potential. They thrive in moments of tension, of physical exertion, and peak in glory. Of course, sport has highs and lows. Athletes train and compete at the highest levels. They exert their full mental and physical strength as the world cheers.
Women are strong contenders at the Olympics, and Olympic teams from Canada, China, Australia, US and Great Britain have teams with more than 50 percent women athletes. Women’s major international tournaments are getting the highest views in sport, and more women are in coaching positions than ever before.
Yet progress is quite slow - and there are many ways in which sport continues to fail women, and women fail each other.
When news of the Norwegian beach handball drama broke on social media, thousands of people commented about how awful the situation was. And it is horrible. Norwegian women athletes chose to wear shorts instead of the mandated bikini bottoms and were fined by the International Handball Federation (IHF).
The thought of a woman’s bodily agency being compromised should be enough to enrage the public. But for Muslim and racialised women, exclusion and forced uncovering have been a reality for a very long time.
Misogyny has been the root cause of these policies being created by powerful men in the boardroom who opine and decide what women shall wear. There are so few women on international governing body executive committees, and that fact manifests from policies and regulations that force women to wear clothing they do not want to, or they are sidelined.
If this sounds archaic and terrible that is because it is.
The hijab ban
I am a sports journalist who has written for years on lack of uniform accommodation, hijab bans in particular, in sports. My work is informed by my belief that hijab bans are a result of incompetent and unqualified men making decisions about women’s bodies and clothing, and it is connected to power they wield. It is a combination of misogyny, classism and xenophobia.
Hijab bans have affected generations of Muslim women athletes. Historically, hijab bans were implemented to ensure “safety” for players and opponents. We know that this isn’t true. A hijab ban remains upheld by the Federation du Football Francais (FFF) in France, despite FIFA striking it down in 2014.
This is a gross example of xenophobia and gendered Islamophobia. While France hosted the women’s world cup of 2019, Muslim women of that same country who choose to wear hijab may not play, coach, officiate or be part of a team in any way.
As expected, the women taking up the fight are racialised women and allies through an organisation called “les hijabeuses”. The issue had not been reported in full by football media. In fact, it took years and relentless Tweeting to even draw attention to this issue. Only Muslim women journalists, academics, and activists were are at the forefront of it. Most women remained blissfully ignorant or uncaring.
I am not upset that people started to care about Norwegian women athletes' lack of choice. It is indeed egregious, and part of a wider system of sexism in sport. But the lack of outrage for Black and Brown women in sport does not escape me.
Many women have shared their dismay and anger with these rules. The IHF has no justification for this particular rule, and admitted to a New York Times reporter that although they don’t know the reason for this rule, “they are looking into it internally”.
One of the main reasons that hijab bans and those who fight them have not been garnering attention is because the media does not report on it.
I followed the story about hijab being banned by FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, for years. In 2014, I had to push to get it published in the first place. Very few sports editors were interested in a story about a very small population of mostly racialised women not being allowed to ball.
When FIBA ratified the new policy to allow hijab it was ironically the same time they announced a partnership with Nike - that just launched a sports hijab.
I spoke with sports sociologist Dr Nida Ahmad, whose research on Muslim women in sports and media is ingenious, and she says that media coverage of Muslim women and their triumphs and challenges has failed to capture or provide nuanced understandings of the complexities and intersections on the lives of women, while othering them.
Dr Ahmad says that the portrayals are not presented in a manner that is of strength of advocacy. Rather, it relies on antiquated tropes on oppression of Muslim women.
“Where was the enthusiasm, the range, and communities coming together in 2012 with FIFA, or 2017 in FIBA with what’s happening in France, what’s happened with Noor Alexandra Abukaram, what’s happening in the US, what’s happening in the European Union,” she said over a series of WhatsApp voice notes.
“Where is the same outrage or anger when Muslim women’s bodies are policed?”
‘Selective inclusion is not inclusion at all’
Part of the problematic cycle is due to disinterest of white women who wish to keep Muslim women at arms length, whose lives they do not understand, and whose choice to cover they are unfamiliar with.
Yet, this indifference and unwillingness to advocate for racialised women is dangerous and unfair. And it continues to plague sport. How many women journalists wrote of the beach handball team and made no connection to the intersections? Made any comment on burkini bans, the FFF’s racism, or exclusion of swim caps for Black swimmers? Or simply ignored the ongoing struggles of Black and Brown women in sport?
Therein lies part of the problem. Sports media in the US, Canada and Europe is made up of mostly white men, and often, stories about women from the margins may not be compelling. While the Norwegian beach handball debacle is important to amplify, the same type of attention needs to be given to other women facing similar challenges.
There is no shortage of criticism regarding media’s portrayal of Muslim women, but the gaps in connecting struggles of Muslim women athletes who are victims of the same systems of misogyny, to women who look like the Norwegian beach handball team, remain vast and immeasurable.
Misogyny has long affected racialised women in sport through lack of funding and lack of media coverage. Coupled with unjust policies on what they can or can not wear, seems like an impenetrable battle.
As the conversations around women and sports continue, it is important to remember that selective inclusion is not inclusion at all. The coverage of Norwegian women being forced to uncover or Paralympian Olivia Breen being told her shorts are “too short” is of paramount importance; adjacent to that is how Muslim women have also been subject to this injustice. We can not be selective in our solidarity.
Forcing women out of clothing is just as violent as forcing them into it. And denying their access to sport is a grave injustice. All women deserve better, and so does sport.
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