Another Piece on "Western Media on Muslim Women Athletes"

  1. By Mariam Morshedi, Small Media Guest Researcher 
    Edited by Small Media
  2. A Narrow Focus

    The western media has a narrow focus when it comes to Muslim women athletes. Most news pieces relating to Muslim women and sporting discuss issues surrounding the wearing of the headscarf during competitive sporting tournaments. In the build-up to London 2012, the first female Olympians from Saudi Arabia and Qatar made headlines, again sparking the debate about headscarves at the Olympics. What image do these articles impress upon the western public?
    The Women's Sports Foundation notes: “Many Americans have been conditioned by media, politics, and prejudice to associate women of Islam with notions of oppression and indignity. This pity is both disempowering and largely misdirected”.

    Newspaper articles often capture more than their headlines suggest, but headlines are what captivate a reader’s attention. In this Small Media report we highlight some of the key issues often disregarded by western media, examining the cultural and political complexities of Muslim female athletes’ situation, which the skimming reader may not notice.

    Glory is Complicated

    Newspapers pounced when Saudi Arabia announced in June that it would allow women who qualified to officially compete at the London Olympics. This decision, which was labeled a landmark "victory" by the media, generated concerns amongst human rights organisations and the athletes themselves.

    Human Rights Watch, which has published a scathing criticism of situation of women's rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, stressed that simply allowing women to participate in the Olympics is not enough. In contrast, voices from within Saudi Arabia reminded us that a top-down decision like this will potentially have complicated effects in a society that does not generally champion the idea of female athletes.

    On 25 June 2012, The Globe and Mail stated, "Discussions on sending women to the Games have been wrapped in secrecy for fear of a backlash from the powerful religious establishment within a deeply traditional society, in which women are severely restricted in public life and are not even allowed to drive”.

    In a follow-up article on 3 July 2012, Rawh Abdullah, the captain of a Saudi women’s soccer team in Riyadh, discussed her concerns over sending women to compete: "If they do well, it will be okay, but if they have weak performances, they will turn to us, and say, 'See, you pushed, you went, and you lost. You shamed us”.  The Globe and Mail, July 3, 2012

    The struggle for control over women’s conduct and especially over women’s bodies is deeply-rooted in many societies, as women are often seen as the “bearers of cultural authenticity”. In Muslim societies, however, it is particularly politicised. Throughout history, the ‘western(ised) modernisers’ have seen the condition of women within a particular society as an indication of that society’s level of culture. They perceive the Muslim woman’s headscarf to be a sign of ‘backwardness’; simultaneously this very same item of apparel represents pride in culture and tradition for many who wear it.

    In her landmark article “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation” first published in 1991,Deniz Kandiyoti (page 47) summarised this view:

    “Just like ‘western’ colonisers who used the ‘plight of Oriental women’ as a hallmark of the savagery and depravity of the colonised and as a justification of the mission incumbent upon their own civilizational superiority, modernist reformers bemoaned the condition of women as a clear symptom of backwardness”.
    In Muslim societies where women’s dress codes have become highly politicised, the internationally competitive female athlete faces pressure from all directions. She often faces disapproval, not just from governmental forces but also from ordinary people.   

    On 27 July 2012, the Huffington Post reported, "[A Saudi woman said] that when she recently went on a mountain climb abroad with a group, they were called ‘loose women’ and told they were ‘whores … on the path to hell’". The following day The Guardian reported that عاهرات_الاولمبياد (Olympic_Whores) had appeared as a Twitter hashtag. The Guardian subsequently observed, “[T]he thought of Saudi women running in a conservative tracksuit with the face showing is simply too much for many to handle”. 

    In her interview with The Globe and Mail, Rawh Abdullah continued, “We have to wait. I am afraid of their reaction, if we push too hard … We risk being shut down completely, and I do not want to reach a dead end because of impatience”.