Headscarves and Olympic sports
At the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, women athletes on various teams, including Saudi Arabia, were required by their country, to wear headscarves specially designed for their sports. The Saudi women’s judoka wore a headscarf. So did Sarah Attar, the Saudi women’s 800 meter track runner.
At the same time, another group of women athletes, the synchronized swimming team from Egypt, swam with a fair amount of skill, in swimsuits that were as revealing as their competition, and no headscarves or swimming caps.
While this may not seem like much of an achievement, consider the context.
Headscarves in the Arab world
Headscarves are not some ubiquitous Muslim tradition dating back to Mohamed. Head scarves have been worn by men women of Jewish, Muslim and other religions, often by people who lived in uncomfortable climates, both in hot environments as well as cold places. Often, because of its impracticality in daily life, the ability to wear one regularly was seen as a sign of wealth. More recently, especially in monotheistic faiths that practice a male dominated pedagogy, it was taught as a mode of modesty. In Islam, the mandatory headscarf has only been a cultural norm in Saudi Arabla for about 100 years.
Even today, only the Saudi kingdom, Iran and parts of Indonesia require women to don a headscarf, hijab, or burqa of one sort or another. Meanwhile it is prevalent a wider number of nations, but again, not required. It is respectfully accepted. That acceptance is a form of liberal tolerance, not commonly found in places where the headscarf is required by law.
Egypt, which is a nascent democracy, is nevertheless a nation of strong cultural adherence, regardless of one’s opinion of that culture. And even though it is still regulated, the headscarf is a common garment seen in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
Geopolitical and cultural impact of the headscarf in Egypt
The country, which little over a year ago ousted its longtime secular military dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, in favor of an Islamist politician, may respect the headscarf, but it does not see a need to enforce it in the dress code, even as it remains the cultural epicentre of the modern Islamic world. The Arab Spring or Jasmine Revolution may after all be a stronger reinforcement of a coexisting cultural and political dichotomy than might be perceived at first glance.
The nation on the Nile is also now run by a democratically elected President, Mr. Mohamed Morsy, who was educated in America, and is a longtime friend and member of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s right, the same Muslim Brotherhood that gave birth to the ideology which inculcated the extremism of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida ilk. It does not take much imagination to understand what his views are on the subject of headscarves. He is all for them. Even so, he has not even tried (not yet anyway) to make the headscarf mandatory for Egyptian women, because he knows the people of Egypt would not willingly comply with such an order. Egypt, it seems, may be quite capable of running a government elected by the people, even if those people chose a Muslim fundamentalist as their leader.
Of course, that same Egypt is still really headed by the military, which shortly before the elections of 2012, secured its continuing authority through its own dictates. The Egyptian military has assured itself that limiting the executive powers of its newly elected President is the best path towards a better future.
The Egyptian President, meanwhile, as if to prove his moderate values, has already launched military attacks against terrorists in the Sinai peninsula, where recent attacks by militant Muslim gunmen left 17 Egyptian soldiers dead, in addition to destroyed property, military wreckage, and the aftermath of a lethal battle with Israeli forces, who killed the terrorists at the border.
Headscarves, Niqabs and other veils in Saudi Arabia
Now contrast the image of this seemingly divided nation against that of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is run by the Wahabite tribe of Sunni Muslims, who control Mecca, and thus, influence the ideological world of Sunni Islam around the world. Saudi Arabia still has slave markets, and public beheadings by the sword. And yet, people around the world are more concerned about their women having to wear a headscarf. It’s impressive what good PR all that oil money can buy.
While focusing attention on a cultural wardrobe requirement for the fairer sex, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Muslim regimes have distracted enough minds from the real atrocities in their countries, to make observers of the world’s popular quadrennial sports extravaganza give more attention to a piece of fabric, than to the human rights those nations abuse, day in and day out, year after year, without an end in sight.
What mandatory headscarves for its female athletes say about a nation
The contrast of Saudi women having to wear head scarves when competing at the Olympic Games, versus the more liberated women of the Egyptian synchronized swimming team who do not have to wear such fashion accessories, says a lot about the nations from whence they hail.
For one thing, it says that Saudi Arabia is still living in the Dark Ages, when superstition and tradition are more important than science, learning, educated advancement and having an open mind. It says that Saudi Arabia prefers to adhere to the Olden Times and the ways of their ancestors, than to seek a better future for all of its citizens, no matter what their gender, race, creed or sexual preference.
By contrast, the lack of headscarves on the Egyptian women’s athletics teams, says that despite upholding folkloric, cultural religious tradition, they are also determined to actualize a better future; one which is just and allows for the pursuit of happiness. And even though they may seem to be taking a step back by picking a pro-headscarf man as its political head, the evidence to date suggests that the political establishment in the world’s most populous Arab country will not seek to cause deeper social divides by requiring women to wear scarves upon their heads. It seems Mr. Morsi has decided that it is better to maintain a balance between conservatism and liberalism, and that means the old and the new are constantly shifting the weight of popular support back and forth, much like the desert sands around old Pharaoh’s lands.
What it boils down to, is that Egypt has decided to maintain its support of liberal social norms, demonstrated by its ongoing funding of largely exposed female athletes, even as they are governed by a religiously traditional administration, and Saudi Arabia has decided to remain behind the times, as it does by continuing to enforce inhuman laws and punishments against its weakest populations.
As for me, I look forward to the day that no one, no man, woman or child is required to wear any particular piece of clothing, whether in athletic competitions or in day-to-day life, almost as much as I look forward to the end of slavery and human rights abuses around the world.