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IWD: Empowering Muslim women to participate in team sports

IWD: Empowering Muslim women to participate in team sports

Categories: Latest News

Friday March 08 2019

Brunel University in London has become the first UK University to offer a sports hijab as part of their university kit. The initiative stems from an investigation from the students’ union that found a gap in BAME female sports participation and that there were barriers to Muslim women taking part in team sports.

Ranjeet Rathore, Brunel University Student Union President, said that Muslims were “participating in sports on their own and in private, but they weren’t really going out to competitions or using sport as a social tool to get involved in activities”.

Wearing hijab can be a literal barrier to participating in sports in public. Business management student Faith Al-Saad said “the traditional hijab is basically a cloth you wrap around your head and pin down. You can’t really run in it, it’ll literally fly off.” In comparison, Al-Saad believed that Brunel University’s sports hijab is “a lifesaver” and that it “feels like you’re wearing nothing on your head which is amazing, especially when doing sports.

The material that the university use is breathable and lightweight and features ‘Team Brunel’ insignia. The hijab is available in two sizes and at present is only available in ‘Brunel Blue’, although the university hopes to introduce more colours and sizes in the future.

In minimising the challenge of playing sports with a religious head covering, sports hijab simultaneously makes sports more inclusive by allowing Muslim women to participate in public and challenges the narrative of the hijab being a symbol of oppression.

A study by Sport England in 2017 found that 30 per cent of UK females participate in sport, but when it came down to Muslims that figure dropped to 18 per cent. Equally, a 2010 survey from Women in Sport cited the lack of modest dress, socio-economic differences, fear of racially motivated incidents, and the lack of role models among the barriers facing Muslim women’s participation in sport.

Dr Rimla Akhtar MBE, chair of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation, gave evidence in 2013 to the Culture, Media and Sports Committee stating that Muslim women face “organisational barriers” to team sports and cited the lack of plurality within the BME community in media coverage of sporting role models. Akhtar said she “never felt like football welcomed people like me – I didn’t see anybody like me”, but participated in the British Muslim Women’s futsal team and went on to captain the British Muslim women’s football team in 2005. Akhtar is a motivational public speaker and is the first Muslim woman to sit on the Football Association Council.

Equally, Jawahir Robel is the first Muslim woman to be a qualified football referee. Robel is a FA Youth Leader and volunteers for Kick It Out, a charity that works to eliminate racism in football. She stated that her dream was that “one day my fellow Muslim sisters will happily play sport.” She referees men’s games with a hijab on and says that she’s always “preparing for the worst” but that she “can’t wait” to get to the top as she is now seen as a role model and wants to help more girls get into football.

Another Muslim woman in sports is Khadija Safari who has a black belt Muay Thai kickboxing instructor who has recently made headlines for teaching Muslims women, who were worried about Islamophobic attacks, how to defend themselves. She said “I’ve taught women who have had their hijabs pulled off them. They are worried about these kind of attacks…When there’s a terror attack linked to Islam some women are afraid to go out.” For Safari, female empowerment is something all females can access regardless of their religious dress.

  • Sports hijab are slowly becoming mainstream on the market, with Nike releasing their ‘Pro Hijab’ in March 2017. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed endorsed Nike’s hijab saying that it will “help advance the conversation around hijabs and Muslim women in sports and further make sports an inclusive space.” Muhammed’s victory inspired Barbie to create a doll in her likeness wearing the hijab and the fencing gear as part of the Shero range, a portmanteau of ‘she’ and ‘hero’ to encapsulate positive female role models. Muhammed said she hopes the doll inspired “the next generation of girls to play out their own dreams,” and that she is “proud to know that little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear hijab.”

Likewise, Brunel University London said they hope their specially designed hijab “makes sport more inclusive for everyone.” Rathore added that “there are now other universities that want to partner with us, who want to take samples off us, who want to do their own hijab – which is great news.”

The issue of hijab is important in a wider context. Home Office statistics in 2018 showed a 40% increase in religiously motivated hate-crime over the previous year, with Muslims making up the majority of victims. Many of those targeted are Muslim women wearing the hijab which is a very visible symbol of their faith. Hence at this time of rising anti-Muslim sentiment, it is more important than ever before that such symbols of religious identity gain acceptance in the social consciousness of our society.

“This [Brunel University’s sports hijab] isn’t a gimmick or a tick box exercise,” Dr Rimla Akhtar told MEND. “It not only provides a practical solution, it sends a clear message to Muslim women that they are included and wanted – something that many girls don’t feel in the education and sport system. I applaud Brunel University in their efforts to be more inclusive.”

MEND commends Brunel University for pioneering the way for Muslim women to participate in team sports at university and thus marking an important step be fully included in the sporting and cultural University life.



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