BETINA ALONSO explores the intersection between religion and athletics

(The Varsity)
The University of Toronto has come a long way in fostering an inclusive policy for athletics. Training facilities on all three campuses offer women’s-only hours daily, and the Varsity Blues program has a history of accommodating the religious customs of its athletes. Being in Canada, however, bears undeniable cultural implications that prevent some Muslim women from becoming active in university athletics.
Muslim girls who are indifferent to wearing headscarves and have no qualms about being around the opposite sex adapt more easily to athletic life at the University of Toronto. However, practicing girls that prefer to wear less revealing clothing, have stricter families, and tend to feel less comfortable around men who are not their relatives might have more serious concerns when it comes to training.
“I come from Saudi Arabia and because we have segregated sports for both boys and girls, it really encourages more girls to try out sports and actually get very interested in them,” says Huda Idrees, the vice-president External of the Muslim Students Association. “Over here, the general aura around people who play sports — the Varsity uniforms — might be big hindrances. There are also, of course, the religious restrictions, such as the headscarf.”
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Hanieh Khosroshani, a Muslim U of T student and part of the Varsity Blues women’s rugby team for two years, believes that, mainly for issues of comfort, Muslim women tend to stay out of university athletics.
“I think many Muslim women limit themselves, because of the occasional lack of acceptance, and because of the inconvenience and uncomfortable aspects of it,” says Hanieh.
Naafia Mattoo, a Muslim U of T alumnus, notes that “in Muslim culture, you wouldn’t be in a room filled with guys who weren’t related to you in tight fitting clothes.”
Still, Hanieh comments that in her experience with the Varsity Blues, “[They] were very considerate when it came to accommodating my needs in terms of uniform. They allowed us to do whatever we needed to in order to be comfortable.”
To play rugby, Hanieh was given a scrum cap to wear, so that her hijab would not move around. Nevertheless, there is only so much that accommodation can help with.
“When I play soccer for tri-campus, it makes it a little more difficult. It’s just not that easy working out when you’re fully covered,” says Hanieh.
Manager of Sports Information and Promotions for the Blues, Mary Beth Challoner, reports that without the administration’s knowledge, there have been Muslim women competing in OUA field hockey and soccer.
“They have worn track pants the colour of the shorts and long sleeve shirts under their jerseys. They have also worn head coverings. These athletes were able to train and compete with their teams in an open facility because they were able to accommodate their sport uniform needs with their religious requirements,” says Challoner.
Girls who are only involved in training and use the university training facilities adapt in different ways. Some go to gym facilities during regular training hours and use breathable scarves, wear tights under their shorts, loose tracks, and long tops. Others prefer to take advantage of the scheduled women’s-only hours, since they allow for Muslim girls who normally wear headscarves to work out in regular training gear.
Huda considers the efforts made for inclusiveness at the university athletic facilities “commendable,” with some caveats.
“As soon as the women’s-only hours finish, the guys pretty much pour into the centre, and I’m always paranoid that I will be caught off-guard without my hijab,” says Huda, and she prefers keeps on her headscarf as a result. “I would much rather not have my headscarf on while exercising because it gets hot and sweaty.”
While there are women’s-only swimming hours at the Athletic Centre, the swimming pool is visible from the dance studio. “It defeats the purpose,” says Huda.
“The hours are fairly short. I guess that’s the only criticism I would make,” claims Hanieh, and adds that “not all areas of these facilities get women’s-only hours, only some do.” Huda also finds that the hours are restrictive and usually don’t fit into her schedule. She also has to leave the pool and the strength and conditioning centre before the end of women’s-only training hours, since men are let into the room on the clock.
Dance classes are mixed, and as a result, can be distressing for those who prefer not to have an opposite-sex dance partner.
Maryam S. Mughal, who goes to dance classes, does not like to dance with men, and prefers to use a female partner. Huda personally thinks there should be women’s-only dance classes.
“I would want the Dance Studio to be closed for this class, so men aren’t allowed in,” says Huda.
Most girls have not had a problem with acceptance by other students, or been the target of inappropriate comments while training.
“Nobody has ever bugged me about my clothing,” claims Huda. “The dance and SCC instructors are great.”
“I think people are accepting, but whether people accept it or not has never really impacted what I have wanted to do,” says Hanieh.