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Hello and welcome to the hijabi Olympics

How about focusing on the sport instead of commenting on hijab-wearing athletes?

Muhammad USA

by Rachel Shabi

You know what makes the Olympics historic this year? It isn't that the Rio Olympics are the first to be held in a South American city, or that it's the largest ever Olympic village.

It isn't that, for the first time, an independent athlete has won gold - suspended Kuwait's Fehaid al-Deehani, at men's double trap - or that Rio features the first ever Refugee Olympic Team.

It isn't even that there are a record number of women, 47.7 percent, competing at a summer Olympics.

'Athlete vs athlete'

No, the truly historic bit is, of course, the hijab - for verily, these are the amazing, inaugural hijabi Olympics.

Witness the countless headlines breathlessly hailing the first United States Olympian to compete in a hijab: the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

To help us get to grips with this dazzling achievement - the hijab, obviously, and not the fact that she's ranked eighth in the world - we had BBC World tweeting about the incredible phenomenon as: "Hijab and a sword" - which, we hope, is the start of a series, continuing with, say: jodhpurs and a riding crop; athlete pants and a javelin; leotard and a chalk bowl.

And then there was the viral image of Egyptian and German women playing against each other at Olympic volleyball, one in a bikini, the other in a hijab. 

If you're celebrating the fact that official sporting bodies have stopped being so restrictive over uniforms, maybe spotlighting the hijab each time you see an athlete wearing one isn't the way to do it.
That got the BBC Africa account tweeting “Bikini vs Burka” - not a burka, but why sacrifices a nice bit of alliteration for the sake of accuracy.

Meanwhile, a deluge of commentary suggested that this image - of two women competing in the same sport, at an international event - was a symbol of a cultural clash or divide.

As the Libyan-American writer Hend Amry tweeted in response, the actual caption to this picture could have been: "Athlete vs athlete".

Fetishising appearance

Some of the reaction to what we shall name the hijabi Olympics - or the #creepingshariaOlympics, for the haters - is to do with it being new.

Changes to the Olympic rules in 2012, along with last-minute, hijab-related concessions this year, have allowed conservative-dress-observing athletes to take part.

You can well imagine that liberal-minded people, seeking to counter all the abuse and discrimination that hijab-wearers in the West face daily, would strive in some way to salute the wearing of it by these Olympic-level athletes.

The trouble is that the overdrive gushing goes in the other direction and ends up fetishizing - rather than just ignoring these bits of material as, well, immaterial.

Moreover, what has crept into so much of the commentary is a sense of - what shall we call it? - Orientalist awe, as with this Washington Post headline: "Muslim female athletes find sport so essential they compete while covered" as in, wow, these women love sport so much that they've even managed to overcome this uniquely disadvantageous Muslim religion thing.

If you're celebrating the fact that official sporting bodies have stopped being so restrictive over uniforms, maybe spotlighting the hijab each time you see an athlete wearing one isn't the way to do it.

After all, making female volleyball players wear bikinis "with the lower part no more than 7cm from top to bottom at the hip" was always dodgy - and the repeal of this rule is something that non-Muslim women have taken advantage of, too.

Everyday sexism

Meanwhile, if you're celebrating the fact that Muslim women are making it to the Olympics against incredible odds, maybe also mention that women all over, regardless of faith, face giant obstacles to compete in sporting professions where men are promoted, pushed and rewarded so much more.

But the trouble is that this hijab-focus is part of a much larger vat of pointless, gratuitous commentary around sportswomen, how they look and what they wear - which obviously has nothing to do with the actual field in which they've worked hard to become globally ranked competitors.

So, for instance, at this year's Olympics we have the body-shaming of Mexican gymnast Alexa Moreno, as well as the UK Daily Mail devoting an article to "the best and worst Olympic leotards" at Rio.

Oh, and female sports commentators don't get a pass here: It isn't their journalism that's judged, but the "appropriateness" of what they are wearing.

This is what happened to BBC presenter Helen Skelton, who came under constant scrutiny for her skirt length, even while her male co-panellist's shorts went entirely unnoticed.

It's all a constant reminder that women will be assessed foremost for appearance, no matter what or how capable the performance.

It's a way to try to insist that, even while these incredible female Olympians are excelling, defying, pushing boundaries, beating odds, amazing us all and winning medals for their countries - they must be losing, at something, at the same time. And it's long past time to make sure those aren't the games we're playing.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.

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