Got it covered: Bahrain's Roqaya al-Gassra at the Beijing Olympics (AFP)
As London prepares for the Olympics next year, a number of Islamic countries are deciding whether or not to send female participants and, if so, what they can and cannot wear. The two issues are closely connected.
At the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Games, 14 delegations included women wearing headscarves, who went on to take part in such sports as athletics, shooting and football. Yet the Olympic Charter clearly states that neutrality in sports is crucial and that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted on any Olympic sites, venues or other areas". In preparation for London, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) looks set to continue breaking its own rules in an attempt to appease Islamists, prompting secularist women's groups to threaten protests about gender apartheid at the Games.
The number of countries sending men-only delegations has decreased — from 35 in 1992 to three in Beijing (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei) — but lately, as more and more Islamic countries agree to send women athletes to the Olympics, there has been a significant increase in the wearing of headscarves or other types of clothing designed to cover the body for reasons of "modesty".
A Canadian sports hijab retailer, ResportOn-Sports, claims on its website that its products "allow Muslim women to conciliate their religion with their practice of sport". In the build-up to the London Olympics it has received requests for information regarding its products from almost 200 participating country representatives.
Iran has even hosted a separate event for female athletes. At the inauguration of the fourth (and, it would appear, final) Women's Islamic Games in Tehran in 2005, IOC President Jacques Rogge congratulated the organisers for "inviting women from across the globe to compete in the ongoing games".
The IOC was first persuaded to exempt Islamic countries from the Charter rules as a result of lobbying by Iranian officials after the first Islamic Games in 1993. These games, organised by the Islamic Federation of Women's Sport (IFWS) are segregated: no men (or members of the press) are allowed except during the opening and closing ceremony when the women are wearing the hijab. IFWS claims that the event abides by the Olympic Charter, although because separate games for women result in gender apartheid, it clearly does not.
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