“Hey, aren’t you hot in that?” This is the question just about every hijabi athlete is asked whenever she participates in a sport. Muslim women who wear hijab have recently become hyper-visible in mainstream media as they participate in sports on global platforms like the Olympics. Muslim women like US fencer Ibtihaj Mohammad, Egyptian volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy, Saudi Arabian Judo competitor Wojdan Shaherkani and UAE ice skater Zahra Lari are only a few of the individuals paving the way for women after them.
The impact hijabi athletes have on each other when there is visible participation in team sports on all levels is tremendous…
The Olympics is not the only place Muslim women are grabbing attention. Twenty-seven year old basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir holds the record for highest scorer in high school basketball, and Stephanie Kurlow aspires to be the first hijabi ballerina. Although the women in the Olympics and other national and international arenas get most of the attention, many important stories of triumph and perseverance come from your neighborhood hijabi athletes. The impact hijabi athletes have on each other when there is visible participation in team sports on all levels is tremendous – others begin playing sports that they’d never been in before simply because they finally saw someone like them doing it.
For many hijabis, choosing to play a team sport means that they are deciding to be the only ones layering under uniforms and wearing scarves. They take the brave step of looking visibly different than anyone else. Sometimes, to make competing a less daunting endeavor, they opt for sports where they could easily be fully covered, such as soccer, track and field or basketball.
“When I first started looking for a sport, my mindset was to find one that was hijab friendly. At first I tried to look for sports that already had hijabis playing – but no such luck. For some sports, like cheerleading, swimming and gymnastics, they just didn’t seem to have hijabi friendly uniforms,” said Waad Ibrahim, 18, who is Sudanese and lives in Virginia, USA. She ran track for three years, ran short and long distances, pole vaulted and played lacrosse for four years.
Ibrahim decided to step out of her comfort zone and play lacrosse even though it almost didn’t happen. She stated, “I almost didn’t try out for lacrosse (I was the only hijabi at the time), and many people tried to discourage me since I was the only one. Facing my fears allowed me to find something I really enjoyed and would have missed out on had I chickened out.”
The modification of uniforms is not uncommon for players who want their skin covered while on the field. Surprisingly, hijabi athletes can get called out in Muslim countries where dressing modestly might be the norm.
“My first time ever [playing in] an official match in the Egyptian league was four years ago. I was wearing my jersey with an under shirt and pants, [and] the ref stopped and said that the whole uniform had to be visible, so they had to see the socks and the shorts. I wore the shorts and the socks on top of my pants and I looked [silly], but I learned then how much I love this game and that it didn’t matter how I looked,” said Farah Korayem, 19, from Cairo, Egypt. She played soccer for four years and during that time realized what a big responsibility it was to wear hijab as an athlete. That kind of visibility made her aware of the impact she made wherever she competed.
Before she ever made the USA Triathlon team, Khadijah Diggs was modifying her own racing kits. From previous experiences, and as the only Muslim woman on her team, she knew she would stand out in a hijab. In years past she stated she would, “modify kits that were sent to me by sewing on arm coolers and leg coolers.” When she made Team USA, she was given a certified racing outfit that also met her standards of modesty. Her Team USA kit, made by ROKA. Ownway Apparel, has also designed a racing outfit for her. Although this special modest racing outfit is not yet widely available for other Muslim women who want to be triathletes, Diggs is working with the brands to change that.
What do Muslim women do when they want to participate in sports that are not at all hijabi friendly? Farah Sadek, 19, is from Western Australia and is a competitive swimmer who had to think seriously about how she would balance modesty and her sport. “As a deeply personal choice, my hijab has opened my eyes to a range of alternatives whilst still managing to uphold my religious duty. At times, however, my competing in swimming has felt like an ongoing battle between being modest and my longing to remain physically active [by participating in] the sport I have played for nearly my entire life,” said Sadek. Although she doesn’t compete in swimming meets much anymore since choosing to wear hijab, she knew that no matter what, she would always love swimming.
“With time…I realized that everything must be approached in moderation, that having a balance was essential not only to my transitioning to wearing the hijab, but in everything I do in life. The main reason being that prior to my deciding to wear the hijab, I envisioned that with this decision I would have to give up my love for the water. It did not cross my mind that I could do both,” said Sadek. These women know the impact of seeing someone like them compete on a national or international level because they’ve been inspired by the Olympic athletes they’ve witnessed on television.
Despite the challenges that come with wearing a hijab and being an athlete, these young women are determined to keep going – because for them, it’s bigger than just kicking a soccer ball or sprinting down a track.
Siba Siddique, 21, originally from Kerala, India, played basketball in university in the UAE and recently met one of her heroes, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who she met at the 2018 Special Olympics MENA 9th Regional Games this March. She went on to say, “I look up to Manal Rostom, the Nike Run Club Coach and trainer from Egypt who proudly wears the hijab and was the first hijabi woman to represent Nike on a global platform. I also look up to Zehra Allibhai who is a fitness instructor and health educator from Canada, who regularly posts videos of herself exercising while wearing modest athletic wear.” Playing basketball as a hijabi motivated Siba to show her teammates that she was just as hardworking and dedicated as everybody else.
Despite the challenges that come with wearing a hijab and being an athlete, these young women are determined to keep going – because for them, it’s bigger than just kicking a soccer ball or sprinting down a track. “Everything that I do, that image that I put out there, that is for somebody else,” said Diggs. She met another hijabi for the first time while competing in a triathlon in Dubai, UAE. When they met, the young lady said she’d started training and competing because she’d been inspired by Diggs. That, for Diggs, was a humbling experience. Diggs will be competing in the World Championships in Denmark on July 14th, 2018. For all of these young women, competing in sports is for themselves as well as for the younger generation of Muslim athletes.
Each of these hijabi athletes play sports where they represent a minority. Regardless of where they are from or where they live, whether its Egypt, the UAE or the USA, the motivations behind continuing to make waves as a hijabi athlete are strikingly similar across the board. Before there were hijabis making headlines in the Olympics there were these individuals, sweating on the field, swimming in competition pools, and scoring goals for their teams. Their stories are equally as important because they are extraordinary individuals trying to make their mark wherever they play sports. No matter what, they will leave a legacy, and they will be a support network for other hijabi athletes. These women are trailblazers in their own right.
“The hint of inclusion, safety, acceptance, that I so tirelessly looked for when I started is what these new hijabi players see in me now. I am motivated to continue so others can join and grow their own sport abilities. Hijabis are capable of playing, participating, competing, and exceeding and succeeding in so many different fields,” said Ibrahim. This is a sentiment shared by Sadek, who knows that, “if my participation in any way encourages and motivates other hijabi’s to play sports, this is something I want to continue to be a part of. This is something…I wish I had more of when I first wore my hijab: other fellow hijabi’s to look up to.”