‘I’m not a model. I’m an athlete and people should focus more on my athleticism rather than my clothes’
Don’t be surprised if we hear more about Muslim women in sports this year.
Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur is the No. 2 seed at the first grand slam of the 2023 tennis season — the Australian Open, which got underway on Monday.
Jabeur turned heads in 2022 with thrilling performances at Wimbledon and the US Open, and she’s not the only Muslim woman athlete in the spotlight.
Doaa Elghobashy has been training to help Egypt qualify for the 2024 Paris Games in beach volleyball. She and her teammate were the first Egyptian women to compete in Beach volleyball at the Olympics in 2016.
Meanwhile, three-time NCAA All American and Olympic bronze medalist in fencing, Ibtihaj Muhammad aims to empower women and girls through sports, her clothing line and books. And three-time Egyptian Olympian, Aya Medany is working to increase gender equality in sport.
These Muslim women have made history in their respective competitions and opened doors for a new generation of athletes.
Despite their accomplishments and years of progress making sport more inclusive of Muslim women and girls, there are still hurdles to clear.
This is a look at the roads to success for Jabeur, Elghobashy, Medany and Muhammad and how changing rules have impacted their faith and participation in sport.
What a difference a rule makes
According to the Pew Research Center, there were nearly two billion Muslims around the globe in 2019.
In recent years, Muslim women and girls have competed in a range of sports on the world stage — from fencing to figure skating.
But even with the rise of media and social media coverage, an exact number of Muslim women athletes is difficult to pinpoint in part because some don’t vocalize their beliefs or wear clothing indicative of their faith.
However, over the past few years, camps and community programs designed to expose Muslim girls to sports and help them develop athletic skills have increased — like Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir’s organization, Dribbling Down Barriers.
Influencer and former Somali National Basketball team captain, Jamad Fiin hosts a basketball camp for Muslim girls, while Toronto-based Hijabi Ballers hosts training programs in various sports.
And more Muslim majority countries have allowed women to participate in international sporting events.
According to the International Olympic Committee, nearly half of all competitors in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — 5,457 — were women.
Of those athletes, nearly 380 represented countries designated as Muslim-majority, according to a 2017 Pew study.
The 2016 Summer Olympics hosted a slightly smaller percentage of female athletes — a record at the time. There were just over 5,000 women competitors that year, and just over 380 came from Muslim-majority countries.
Some sports organizations have made it easier for them to compete in modest uniforms. Take the international federations governing basketball and soccer.
The International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA) rule banning religious head coverings was overturned in 2017 and the international organization governing football (FIFA) lifted their ban on head coverings three years earlier.
In the US, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) recently changed its rules to permit student athletes to compete in religious head coverings as long as they don’t pose a risk to other players.
For the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), headgear rules vary by sport. Women’s basketball rules currently require students to get waivers to wear religious headwear.
An NCAA spokesperson told CNN Sports the organization has granted all of the basketball waivers in the past and that it is considering a proposal in May to drop the requirement.
And according to WNBA PR, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) does not require players to submit waivers.
Recently, legislation like Maryland’s Inclusive Attire Act, which allows students to modify athletic or team uniforms to conform with their religious requirements, has passed. Only a few other states — Ohio, Illinois, and Utah — have similar laws on their books.
Sports sociologist, Jay Coakley, called these developments promising. He’s taught about the connections between sports, culture, and society at the University of Colorado.
The participation of Muslim women in sports was put on his radar at the Brighton Conference on Women and Sport in 1994.
“I always thought that the way Muslim women were clothed was grounded in discrimination and that it constituted a significant barrier for women participating in society,” he told CNN Sports.
“I listened to, especially the women from Egypt who were in full burkas and with their face covered up to the lower part of the eyes (and) upper cheekbones … They saw it as a source of freedom.”
However, Coakley warned that any progressive policies are only as permanent as the people who want to enforce them.
In other words, rules can change.
‘The Minister of Happiness’
Tunisian Jabeur, ranked No. 2 in the world in women’s tennis by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), had a stellar record in 2022.
The 28-year-old reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open last year and also competed in her first WTA Finals event, which is open to the top eight women’s singles and doubles tennis players in the world.
Jabeur, who was born in Tunisia, started playing at the age of three. In 2017, she broke into the world’s top 100.
The WTA does not have any restrictions for players who want to wear one or any other religious covering. Covering arms and legs is also allowed.
Jabeur, who does not compete in a hijab, was not available to comment about it when later contacted by CNN Sports.
But she told media at a US Open press conference that her road to success hasn’t been easy.
“There (are) a lot of difficulties growing up coming from Tunisia (and) it’s not easy to believe that you can be here one day, but thankfully I made it happen,” she said about how she became involved in tennis.
“It’s just part of the process and I feel like you should always have difficulties to be stronger, to be here one day and face the best tennis players in the world.”
The US Open tweeted that Jabeur was “the first North African, Arab, and Tunisian woman to reach the #USOpen final.”
A similar tweet was posted a few months earlier by Wimbledon. Jabeur advanced to the finals at that tournament as well.
Jabeur’s success is attracting more people to the sport. According to the Women’s Tennis Association, membership in the Tunisian Tennis Federation has grown and the number of young Tunisians showing interest in the sport has climbed with Jabeur’s success.
Media at a 2022 US Open press conference asked about her ability to inspire young girls to play tennis. Jabeur smiled.
“I hope I can send a powerful message that if I made it here, everybody can make it here. Especially for women from different countries, especially from women from the Middle East, from the Arab world,” said Jabeur, who has been dubbed by Tunisians “The Minister of Happiness,” told media.
‘The hijab is part of me’
In Cairo, Egypt, 26-year-old Elghobashy is competing on her own terms. She’s among the top 500 volleyball players in the world and is training to help Egypt’s beach volleyball team qualify for a second time in the 2024 Olympics, with new teammate Farida El Askalany.
Elghobashy has experienced what some other Muslim women never have — support and acceptance from her sport’s governing body.
She made her Olympic debut in 2016 in Rio De Janeiro. The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) gave her last-minute permission to compete in the Games in hijab, making Elghobashy the first hijabi athlete to do so in beach volleyball.
“I was so happy that they made the decision, because it meant they were giving [an] opportunity for more people to participate in the Olympics,” said Elghobashy, through a translator, in an interview with CNN Sport.
“I have the right to play sports in whatever I feel comfortable in,” added Elghobashy.”
Elghobashy wears hijab, long sleeves and pants on the court. She said she’d oppose anyone who would try to stop her.
“The hijab is part of me,” she told CNN Sports on a break between practices. “At the end of the day, it’s a sport and I’m not a model. I’m an athlete and people should focus more on my athleticism rather than my clothes.”
“Just because I’m a hijabi doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have the opportunity to play at the Olympics,” she added. “I did this, I achieved it. I deserved it.”
Changing the game
According to the International Olympic Committee, all participating Muslim majority countries sent women to the 2016 Summer Games, with the exception of Iraq.
Just four years earlier, all Olympic nations had women athletes on their teams for the first time in modern Olympic history. This included Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, which allowed women to participate in the Games for the first time at the 2012 London Olympics.
This was largely celebrated as a step forward for women in sports, but some, like 34-year-old former Olympic pentathlete Aya Medany, took a step back.
She was the first Olympic pentathlete to compete in a hijab when she represented Egypt in the 2012 London Games.
The pentathlon is an event comprised of five different sports — running, swimming, fencing, shooting and horseback riding. All of these events, with the exception of swimming, allow Muslim women to dress modestly.
However, the swimsuit regulations were an issue for Medany, and part of why she says she stopped competing in 2013.
“It was a very tough decision and like mentally it wasn’t easy,” Medany told CNN Sports. “I feel from inside that I’m not ok, but this is the only way. This is the best way, the best in the worst scenario.”
Like many swimmers, Medany wore a full body suit in the Athens Games in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. After the International Swimming Federation (FINA) announced a ban on the full body suits in competition would go into effect in 2010, she started to consider retirement.
She said this was a problem for her because she wanted to dress modestly — to fully cover her arms, legs and torso — a religious principle she values.
However, the swimsuits became a problem for FINA after over 100 world records were set by swimmers wearing the suit. Leaders of FINA were concerned that the suit, which was made of polyurethane, might aid a swimmer’s speed, buoyance and endurance.
Medany tried to adapt by competing in swimsuits that didn’t fully cover her body. It paid off athletically. She qualified for the London Games, but spiritually, she said the change did not sit well with her.
She initially retired in March 2013 — citing her discomfort with the rules, the Arab Spring, and injuries.
A few years later, she returned to international competition in the pentathlon and individual fencing. She said family and coaching staff helped her process the spiritual discomfort with the swimsuit regulations.
She said she retired again in 2020 because of the pandemic. A year later, she was appointed to the Egyptian parliament.
She’s also a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission and teaches fencing to girls in a Jordanian refugee camp on behalf of the NGO, Peace and Sport.
The challenges Medany experienced as an athlete motivated her to try to make sports more accessible to women and girls from different backgrounds.
“I said, ‘ok,’ that one day I’m going to be in the other position, in their position, and I’m going to listen to people so whatever they have, whatever they need,” Medany said.
‘Everyone knew that I wore hijab’
Ibtihaj Muhammad, 37, said she also faced discrimination while training as a fencer in Maplewood, New Jersey.
She told CNN Sports she started fencing at the age of 12, at the behest of her mother, who liked that fencing uniforms made it easy to practice modesty as they fully cover the fencer’s body.
“She saw this unique opportunity for me to participate in a sport as a Muslim kid without having to run to Modell’s or Dicks Sporting Goods to add something to the uniform like I did in track and field or in tennis,” Muhammad said.
She recalled having to ask permission to compete in her hijab in high school. When she competed, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) required student athletes who wanted to modify uniforms for religious reasons to file a letter with the school’s athletic director.
She said they were asked to be ready to present the letter to officials at every sporting event. Muhammad said she felt the rule was applied selectively.
“Everyone knew that I wore hijab, but it was really just kind of like this discriminatory thing that happened to me as a kid,” she said. “And it was just kind of normal. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play.”
NJSIAA changed its rules in 2021 and no longer requires student athletes to get approval to compete in religious head coverings.
Like Medany, Muhammad said she hopes to make sports more welcoming for Muslim women and girls.
She authored a children’s book called “The Proudest Blue,” which celebrates diversity. She’s promoted the Nike “Pro Hijab,” which aims to make it easier for hijabi athletes to compete.
Mattel created a Barbie doll that looked like Muhammad as part of their “Shero” collection in 2017.
Muhammad has also been vocal about other social justice issues — from safe drinking water to athletes with disabilities.
The day CNN Sports spoke with Muhammad, WNBA star Brittney Griner, had been sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony for drug smuggling.
“My heart is with Brittney and her family for what’s happening,” Muhammad said during the August interview.
“I can’t even imagine being in this situation, but I do feel like this could have happened to anyone and this is why we have to continue to fight for her freedom because I feel like especially as athletes this could’ve been any of us.”
Griner was released from Russian detention in December.
Muhammad, Medany, Jabeur and Elghobasy say they hope to make a significant impact for the next generation of Muslim women athletes. They serve as mentors and have been living markers of how change is possible.
“I’ve always felt like I was doing it because of the lack of representation, and I want more girls who look like me to feel like they have a place in sports. It doesn’t have to be fencing,” said Muhammad.
“I just want us to get out there. I want us to feel comfortable, but I also want other people to know that they have to be comfortable with us being there as well.”
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