By Nehad Khader
As humans and observers of other humans, we frequently pass judgment based on appearances. However, as a general rule—or perhaps, special exception to the rule—women’s appearances are far more scrutinized than are men’s. As identities and symbols, women’s appearances are also more political and politicized. The reason being stems from authorities of power—actual or self-anointed—and the significance of appearance within a particular power structure. From history to present, authorities of power have burdened the female body with the responsibility of reflecting their socio-political legitimacies.
At this year’s London Olympics, with the Saudi Arabian, Qatari, and Bruneian decisions to send women to the Games, it was Muslim women’s bodies that were at the eye of the responsive media storm. But in all the excitement of the Games, we neglected to take a step back and consider the language around women’s bodies. Too often we accept the language given to us without digging behind it, into the realities of Arab and Muslim women. The frame doesn’t and has never fit.
As I sat down to write this article, I tried to find a list of history’s female Arab or Muslim Olympians. Instead, I found article after article about the barriers Arab and Muslim women overcame at the London Games. News reports made it seem as though Muslim and Arab women had never competed in the Olympics, that they had never made significant contributions, or that they’d never once set foot on the medal platform. Were their proclamations really evidence of a momentous year for Arab and Muslim women?
To make their case, some media outlets cited Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the Olympic Aquatics Center, as an example of the strides taken by Muslim and Arab women at the London Olympics. But it is senseless to reduce an architect of her stature to her cultural heritage in order to prove that Arab or Muslim women have come far. Though the fact is self-evident, the conclusion is fallacy. More disconcerting than Hadid’s Arab-ness is the novelty media finds in an Arab Muslim woman who not only has a career, but is one of the best in her field. To fuss over Hadid’s achievements, solely through the lens of her religion and heritage, trivializes her accomplishments.
Similarly trivializing was the discussion of Arab Muslim women and the Olympic delegations. Despite its historic first, Saudi Arabia is the anomaly, not the Arab Muslim women they sent to the Games. The country’s legalized gender segregation and discrimination against women is bizarre, even in the broader Arab and Islamic worlds. Certainly there is cause to celebrate the first female Olympians from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei. But to define Arab and Muslim women’s progress based on the actions of countries whose conservatism is far from indicative or normative is ignorant at best, and offensive at worst. While the women of these teams are pioneers, their accomplishments say little about the progress of the many women who share their religious and cultural history.
Muslim and Arab women are no monolith. Their presence and participation at the London Games may speak to the progress of women in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei, but calling it progress overall furthers ignorance about geopolitical realities. As Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch said, “This is a breakthrough for the two women who will compete under the Saudi flag, but it raises the irony that millions of women and girls in Saudi Arabia are still denied an opportunity to participate as a matter of government policy.”
Worden gets at the heart of Western misconceptions about the Arab and Muslim worlds, that is, that the baddest apple represents the whole bunch. Perhaps because their ways are not “normative,” and so, have been sensationalized, a country like Saudi Arabia is deemed to represent all Arab and Muslim lifestyles. This is where conversations around the bodies of Arab and Muslim women are dangerously misrepresentative. Unlike media portrayal, Arab and Muslim women Olympians have a long history of achievements.
The first female Muslim Olympian was Turkish fencer Halet Cambel, who competed 76 years ago at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1984, runner Nawal El Moutawakel won Morocco its first gold medal and became the first woman from a Muslim country to do so. In the inaugural women’s 400m hurdles, El Moutawakel was also the first female born on the African continent to win an Olympic championship. Algeria’s first gold medalist was Hassiba Boulmerka, who won the women’s 1500m competition at the1992 Barcelona games. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Ghada Shouaa won Syria’s first—and only—gold medal in the women’s heptathlon. Robina Muqimyar and Fariba Rezayee were the first women to represent Afghanistan at the 2004 Athens Olympics. And finally, Fartun Abukar Omar represented Somalia at the Athens Games, despite her country having been without a government for thirteen years.
If this year was the year of the female, Arab or Muslim Olympian, it is not because women from incredibly conservative countries sent women to the London Games. To say so ignores the history and contributions of other such athletes and other firsts at this year’s Games: Maryam Yusuf Jamal won Bahrain its first medal in the 1500m race, and Habiba Ghribi won Tunisia its first medal in the 3000m steeplechase.
Even though the popular discussion around Arab and Muslim women’s firsts oversimplified many contexts, it was the conversation around their bodies that was the most critical (and least criticized) evaluation of these women.
Habiba Ghribi’s body and clothing became the location of polemic debate among her fellow Tunisians, that some considered a reflection of the country’s internal post-revolution discord. Much of the media attention she garnered focused not on her medal, but on her clothing—either defaming or defending her. The rhetoric was concerned with honor and shame—featuring tired arguments about whether one could accept her running clothes if she were their daughter or sister. What was most significant was the transformation of her body from a corporeal wonder to an affront to the honor and image of the nation-state.
There was no simple male-female divide in opinion. What lurked behind the debate was a patriarchal structure to which both Tunisian women and men adhere, and that both women and men oppose. While the conversation revealed existing tensions in the Islamic world, it also undermined the Western narrative the Arab and Muslim worlds as monolithic.
There was also controversy over Saudi judo fighter Wojdan Shaherkani’s headscarf. Moments before she was to compete, the International Olympic Committee and Saudi officials negotiated a deal for her to wear a hijab during competition. But the tension spoke to larger things—the outside world’s bewildered fascination with Muslim traditionalism, the Muslim world’s ongoing tension between orthodoxy and less traditional expressions of faith, and the Saudis’ own Islamic-based sense of exceptionalism in the geopolitical sphere. While disparate, all of these conversations staked claims over a woman’s body.
This is a plea for the de-exoticization and the depoliticization of women’s bodies. Depoliticization is a long term goal, not confined to the bodies of women of any particular background—consider the present debate in U.S. politics about rape and abortion. De-exoticization begins with rejecting superficially-assigned, stereotypical meanings founded on an imagined binary of “the liberated” versus “the oppressed.” It is the latter that occurs most frequently on the bodies of Arab and Muslim women.
Let us respect Arab and Muslim female Olympians in the same way that we respect others, and free their bodies from our simplistic assumptions about cultural and religious practice. We must appreciate these women’s individual personhoods in conjunction with their physical capabilities.
Was this the year of the Muslim or the Arab female Olympian? Hardly. Such a year would not be based on cultural stereotypes and gender roles. Arab and Muslim women did not need international sympathy and political generosity for their participations to be significant. These women were top athletes, Olympians no matter from which nation they hailed. As such, we should not gaze upon them with wondrous pity, but rather, regard them with profound respect.