Saudi Arabian athlete Sarah Attar. Foto: AFP
By Rashne Limki
On 25th July, the UK group One Law for All and the French organisation La League du Droits International des Femmes held a Protest against the Olympic Committee’s failure to implement principles of equality and neutrality. The purpose of this event was to protest ‘the segregation of the sexes enforced by specific States to women being banned from taking part in sports if they refuse to wear clothing that covers their entire bodies while competing. The group’s concerns also include the banning of female athletes in contravention of principles of equality and the inclusion of veiled women and sex segregation and apartheid in contravention to neutrality principles.
While the event description outlines more general forms of ‘classical gender discrimination’, there is something deeply troubling about the focus on the issue of ‘sex and gender apartheid’ and ‘religio-political symbolism’ that tacitly implicates Islamic nations.
The issue of the veil, or more precisely, the hijab, at the 2012 Olympics has been a subject of discussion especially since the Iranian women’s football team was banned from participating in their qualifying match against Jordan last year. This ban was announced based on Fifa’s rules for the 2012 Olympics which state that ‘Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.’ Similarly, some feminists have similarly argued that allowing women who wear the hijab to participate in the Olympics contradicts the principle laid out in the Charter that permits ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted on any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’.
Let’s break this down a bit. First, I am not convinced that wearing the hijab counts either as a ‘display [of] political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans’ or as ‘political, religious or racial propaganda’. Propaganda may be defined as: ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view’ (source: oxforddictionaries.com). To suggest that wearing the hijab is a form of propaganda is to fix the hijab as a religio-political symbol, which is not an uncommon argument. For some, it is a symbol of gender inequality, while for others the concern is the hijab’s fundamental association with religion and/or culture.
Now, I am neither a Muslim woman nor a scholar on Islam, in general, or the hijab, in particular. I will claim no ability, then, in debating the meanings and merits of the hijab. And I do acknowledge that the enforced wearing of the hijab is an encroachment upon women’s freedoms and that the enforcement is itself symptomatic of subjugation of women in society. As are issues of trafficking and prostitution, rape, forced marriage, lack of access to abortion services, mass female incarceration, the overrepresentation of women in sweatshop labor, and, yes, equal pay. There isn’t a country in the world that is not guilty of participating in these acts of subjugation. In fact in some cases – like sweatshop labour and mass incarceration – countries like the US are the worst offenders.
So, let’s be honest: the issue with regards the hijab is patently not about inequality in itself but rather the symbolic manifestation of inequality as ascribed to it. This ascription, one might add, is predominantly an effect of the orientalist gaze. And that is also precisely why, although the hijab might be a religio-political symbol, it now bears the form of ‘propaganda’ especially under western scrutiny.
Saudi Arabian judo competitor Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani.
On the question then of political symbolism and propaganda, perhaps black athletes, particularly those from the US and the UK., should be disallowed from wearing their hair natural, in braids, locks, or cornrows? For is not wearing one’s hair natural propaganda too? Anyone remotely aware of the politics of black hair will admit this not a false analogy.
Wearing one’s hair natural, although a ‘choice’, remains in many cases, especially within the global north, a political statement against the historical degradation of black hair and the coercion to emulate white standards of beauty and ‘presentability’. (In fact, it is not uncommon for black women to be refused employment or fired for wearing locks or braids.)
The Black is Beautiful movement that took root in the 60s in the US was a deliberate effort to challenge European aesthetics and reclaim one’s blackness, not least by ‘abandon[ing] hair chemicals and conks for naturals and afros’. But as the movement, its history, and with it its political imperative, abated – as the value(s) attached to black aesthetics changed from moral inferiority to exotic beauty – braids, locks and cornrows became appropriated as tools for the expression of ethnic chic. This, of course, does not imply that wearing one’s hair naturally has lost all political significance. What has changed, however, is the general ascription of symbolism/value from moral to political/cultural to, now, primarily aesthetic. The ‘meaning’ of wearing one’s hair natural is (generally) lost to the general public. Would the IOC, then, dare ban black athletes from participating if they wore their hair natural – or question athletes as to whether they wear their hair natural for political or aesthetic reasons? Sounds preposterous, right?
On the other hand, the dominant view that opposes the hijab associates it purely with a negative moral/political/cultural value. The opposition to the hijab at the Olympics, or in sport in general, is a blanket opposition – not directed solely at those countries where wearing the hijab is enforced by law, but even for those athletes who choose to do so for whatever reason. Perhaps that is because the distinction is too complicated to make in a news byte or because it represents some form of ‘slippery slope’. But if the issue is about women’s freedom, then shouldn’t it also, by definition, be about choice? About not imposing (the expression of) one’s values others? Surely, compared to the hijab, there are far more insidious forms of sex and gender subjugation that are of greater consequence to a ‘global’ struggle for women’s rights?
So why all the fuss about the hijab? In the view of some feminist groups, such as FEMEN, it might be because to be naked is to be free. (This line of argument is generally suspect, and even more so since FEMEN themselves have also organised similar protests against prostitution and trafficking – just one of the many contexts wherein nudity ≠ freedom.) But, in my opinion, it is probably because it is easier to attack de jure subjugation/discrimination than that which is de facto. And herein lies the trouble.
For de facto subjugation is not necessarily any less egregious than that which is legally enforced; in fact, in many cases it is far more harmful and violent. Yet, the fact that such inequality/discrimination is not sanctioned in and by the law allows various states, and by extension the civil society therein, to hide behind and champion ideals such as ‘universalism’ or the ‘spirit of the Olympics’. Of course, these ideals are exactly that – all aspirational talk, little practical substance. (Is football racist? Spirit of the Olympics!) As a consequence, patently colonial/imperial gestures become justifiable, and justified, in the name of, trap of, liberation.
I am not here trying to make the liberal feminist argument about the hijab being a liberating choice. That argument has little political potential as well. Rather, what should be questioned is why, in the first place, do we continue to fall into the colonist trap of making aspects of appearance and comportment into battlegrounds (sometimes quite literally) of morality and enlightenment? Surely the feminist movement has moved beyond its bra-burning days – of measuring the prevalence of patriarchy by the amount of clothing one is allowed to or disallowed from wearing? Is not a sad comment on the state of the movement that we know and understand structural and systemic oppression, but focus still on appearance?
Perhaps what is needed, just as with cornrows, is for someone in Hollywood to adopt the exotic veiled look. That which was once reviled can then become ‘in style’. ‘Headscarves’ will now be worn in the name of liberation, not oppression (or appropriation). Issues will be forgotten behind the veil of aesthetics. (Unfortunately, it appears to be not too long before somebody catches up).
As to the ‘festive burial of the Olympics Charter, accompanied by a New Orleans style jazz band (*facepalm!!!*), marking the death of the Olympics values’ that occurred at the July 25th protest, I’d only add that the actual time of death of ‘Olympic values’ was probably when permission was given for “the world’s largest McDonald’s” to be built in the London Olympic Park – if not long before.