On Track: The Great Olympic Cover-up

In order to encourage Muslim countries to send more women athletes to the Games, the IOC is allowing them to wear the hijab

Features Gender Islam Sport
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.

Dame Kelly Holmes, the double Olympic gold medallist, believes that Britain’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games provides a unique opportunity to address discrimination against women at the highest levels of sport. “At the Beijing Olympics, there were 165 events for men and only 127 for women (with 10 mixed). Despite the IOC claiming in 2004 that ‘our ultimate goal must be 50-50 participation and the introduction of women’s boxing in time for London’, there will still be more events for men during the 2012 Games. Many countries still send many more men than women, and some, such as Saudi Arabia, have yet to send a woman athlete.”

Why does the IOC make an exception for the headscarf? After all, in the Beijing Olympics French athletes were not even allowed to wear a badge with the slogan “for a better world” — a quotation from the Olympic Charter.

Athletes belong to many religions and hold varied political beliefs but rarely attempt to break the Olympic rules. That is what made the actions of African-American medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico in 1968 so extraordinary. Standing on the podium waiting to receive their gold and bronze medals for the 200 metres, they each raised a black leather-gloved fist in the Black Power salute. Shoeless to represent black poverty, the US athletes walked off the podium to booing from the spectators. Carlos also wore a necklace of beads, which, he said, were “for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.”

The IOC President at the time, Avery Brundage, deemed the actions of Smith and Carlos to be a political statement unfit for the apolitical, international forum of the Olympic Games and ordered the men to be suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team. This threat led to the two athletes being expelled from the Games.

The IOC’s stance on political symbolism should not be confused with a lack of commitment to human rights. Four years earlier, in 1964, the IOC had taken the courageous step of banning South Africa from the 18th Olympic Games in Tokyo over its policy of apartheid. The IOC said the decision could be overturned only if South Africa renounced racial discrimination in sport.

The Games are governed by the Olympic Charter, based on universal values, and each member of the Olympic movement swears to observe it. The Olympic oath proclaims that the goal of the Games is to “to contribute to building a better world”. Any form of discrimination is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement, states the Charter, which commits itself to “implementing the principle of equality of men and women”.

Female participation in the Olympics was won only after a long and arduous struggle. Women were barred from the first modern Games in Athens in 1896. Despite this, a woman called Melpomene ran the marathon from its birthplace (in Marathon) to Athens on her own and was cheered by the public. Progress thereafter was painfully slow: women were allowed to compete in a few Olympic swimming and diving events, and in archery, but it was not until the Amsterdam Games of 1928 that they were finally permitted to participate in athletics.

The disregard of Olympic Charter rules with regard to religious symbolism has been evident for some years. At the official closing ceremony in Athens in 2004, Egypt’s most famous swimmer Rania Elwani, newly elected as a member of the IOC Commission of Athletes, was photographed wearing the Islamic headscarf and standing next to the president of the IOC below the Olympic flag.

Before the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore last year the Iran Football Federation requested that Iranian female players be permitted to wear the hijab and were initially refused by football’s world governing body Fifa, citing the Olympic Charter. Eventually, after much persuasion, Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, accepted the Iranian demand on condition that the hijab did not extend to cover the neck.

Maryam Namazie, an Iranian feminist based in London, is a founder of One Law for All, a campaign against the use of Sharia in Britain. She is “appalled” at the non-application of Olympic Charter principles in relation to women. She argues that men-only delegations should be excluded and the IOC should not support the Iranian games devoted to Islamic women only. “Allowing women to be veiled and segregated at the Olympics is like telling black athletes to compete in a separate arena,” she says. “Separate is nothing short of unequal and defeats the whole purpose of the Olympics.”

Roqaya al-Gassra, an athlete from Bahrain, competed in the 400 metres in Beijing totally covered, thus openly demonstrating a political and religious stance. In a newspaper article at the time she said that she had decided to wear Islamic dress, “to show the Muslim tradition” and “to show that all Muslim women can succeed in sport wearing a veil”. (She has since been suspended for two years for failing an out-of-competition drugs test.)

The Ligue du Droit International des Femmes (International League of Women’s Rights) is leading the campaign to end discrimination towards women at the Olympics. Founded by the French feminist and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir in 1983, LDIF is part of France’s largest coalition of women’s groups and is backed by the European Women’s Lobby, a network of 2,500 NGOs.

LDIF aims to promote universal rights for women whatever their culture or religion. Its president, Annie Sugier, says that its members consider the Islamic headscarf an insult to liberty, and men-only delegations akin to apartheid. “The IOC has shown its hypocrisy on this matter. Would Jewish members of a delegation be allowed to take part in events whilst wearing Hasidic attire, or a Christian whilst wearing a crucifix? If we are to reject symbols representing the struggle against racial discrimination, why should we support those that clearly denote gender apartheid?”

The LDIF views are supported by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, all of which have passed resolutions on the full participation of women in the Olympics. Why, then is it possible for the IOC to flout the rules and go against the spirit of the Olympics when it comes to the participation of some Islamic countries?

Christophe De Kepper, chief of staff at the IOC, responded to several letters of complaint from LDIF but ignored the central question. “The IOC is convinced that sport helps empower girls and women because it changes attitudes,” he wrote. “When a woman athlete triumphs she often becomes a role model for her family, her community, or even her country.” 

I asked Annie Sugier if a ban on the hijab at the Games would result in accusations that some Muslim women would be effectively excluded from attending. “In supporting such demands [for female participants to be allowed to wear the veil] one does not support Islamic women, rather it allows a country to impose its views on how women should behave,” she says. 

Liberals and Islamists both claim that female athletes can choose whether or not to wear the headscarf, and that they would not be able to participate in sport if the IOC banned such clothing. But this is a flawed argument. Feminists who support the “right” of women to wear the headscarf rather than calling for a ban should consider whether civil rights activists in the Deep South would have argued for separate buses for black people because otherwise they would not be able to travel to work. 

Muslim women living under Sharia have no choice about whether or not to cover up in public. The veil signifies the fact that women have limited and conditional access to public space, and have to follow rules laid down by men to be allowed to participate in the world outside the home.  

“This is an unacceptable double standard. The IOC puts in danger any Muslim female athlete who complies with the Charter, who does not dare to wear the Islamic veil, because she will be seen as rebelling,” said Annie Sugier.

Since the 1990s, the LDIF has applied pressure on the IOC to ensure that the Charter is implemented to protect the right of female athletes to compete on an equal footing with men, free from religious interference. The IOC, which has 15 women members on its 135-strong committee, is not listening. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games says the Mayor’s office had “no say in the matter”. It is unusual for Boris Johnson not to take a view, especially where women are concerned.

I asked Emmanuelle Moreau, head of media at the IOC, why rules were broken in order to accommodate Islamists. She did not give me an answer, but claimed that the increase in numbers of female athletes taking part in the Olympic Games over the years is largely due to the IOC, which has been “striving to ensure that the Games are universal and non-discriminatory, and of course to reach gender equity.”

She continued: “The IOC does not give ultimatums or deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue. We have been in regular contact with the three NOCs which never sent women to the Olympic Games [Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia]. As a result of fruitful discussions, the three NOCs included women in their delegations competing at the Youth Olympic Games in August 2010 in Singapore, which can been seen as a promising development leading towards London 2012.”

Dame Kelly Holmes says: “I believe the IOC should commit to achieving gender parity in the number of medals available by 2016. I would like to see women of each and every nation represented at London 2012. Only then will the Olympics be equally inspirational for boys and girls.”

I agree with Dame Kelly, but not at the price of Muslim women athletes having to cover themselves and so display their compliance with an ideology that affords them fewer rights than men and an inferior place in the world. This flies in the face of the Olympic ideal.