Beyond the Hijab: Female Muslims and Physical Activity

Article excerpt

Abstract

Researchers have identified significantly low participation rates of Muslim women in international and recreational sport, citing reasons ranging from alleged discriminatory Islamic doctrine to incompatibility with Islamic beliefs. However, there are several examples of Muslim women participating in international competitions and recreational activities on their own terms, leading one to believe that perhaps the Western physical activity cultures are different from Islamic physical activity cultures. In this paper, I examine the physical activity experiences of Muslim women who were born in or immigrated to Canada. There are three areas where physical activity within an Islamic framework differs from that of a Western sport ideology. They were: a flexible and modest dress code, sex segregation, and controlled access to their physical activity space. When such needs were not met by the physical education system or existing recreational facilities, subjects compromised their beliefs, participated with their religious community, or stopped playing completely.

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The human right "to participate in recreational activities, [and] sports" (United Nations, 1979) is recognized in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the International Charter of Physical Education and Sport (UNESCO, 1978). However, a number of researchers identify a significant lack of Muslim women participating in Olympic and international sport (e.g., Sfeir 1985; Atlanta Plus, 1996), and in recreational sport (e.g., Taylor & Toohey, 1998; Toohey & Taylor, 1997; Toohey, 1998). Sfeir (1985), for example, found that in the history of the Olympics, the majority of the Islamic athletes were male. In 1984, Muslim women constituted "less than 4 percent of the Muslim participants and only about 0.3 percent of total participants" (Sfeir, 1985, 287). It is arguable that, Muslim women's right to participate in physical activity and sports is violated, or is a symptom of gender inequality that is often claimed to exist within Islam. The French-based organization, Atlanta Plus , for example, demanded that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) bar from participation in the Olympics those countries that did not send female athletes to the Atlanta Games (Atlanta Plus, 1996). It is assumed here that the human right to play sport is universally accepted and important. However, how sport is played may not be universal. Situations where cultural groups are not fully represented in Western athletic competitions may reflect a conscious choice not to play in the particular structural circumstances of Western sport, rather than restricted participation.

According to Muslim religious text, (1) Muslim women have enjoyed certain rights long before women in the West (Engineer, 1992). These include the right to inherit property, the right to a name, the right to vote, and the right to participate in physical activity. In fact, all Muslims are expected to take care of their bodies and pursue a healthy lifestyle. The Quran (i.e., Islamic Holy Book) and Hadiths (i.e., the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) encourage physical activity as an important part of development (e.g., Alogleh, 1986; Daiman, 1994; Daiman, 1995; Benaham, nid; Ibrahim, 1982; Kamiyole, 1993; Sfeir, 1985; Takim, 1998). For example, the Prophet Mohammed instructed Muslims to be health conscious and to be "ready to fight with the best weapons and arms" (Sfeir, 1985, 293). There are also accounts of the Prophet racing against his wife, and of women participating in "military expeditions (for religious achievements), bringing water to the thirsty combatants, treating the wounded and carrying them to safety, and sometimes engaging in warfare" (Daiman, 1994, 14).

Although physical activity is encouraged for all Muslims, there are restrictions that may account for the lower participation of Muslim women at the Olympics. …