A month ago, FIFA lifted a ban on hijabs that had been in place since 2007. Soccer’s international governing body approved prototypes of the modesty-preserving Muslim head covering that have been equipped with magnetic closures to prevent strangling or other hazards in the heat of competition. Despite such precedents, not to mention the ubiquity of the hijab in athletic arenas across the world, Olympic officials continue to challenge women who wear them.
Last week, the International Judo Federation decreed that Saudi Arabian judo competitor Wodjan Shahrkhani could not wear a headscarf during competition, explaining that it would pose a safety risk. “She will fight according to the principle and spirit of judo, so without a hijab,” IJF President Marius Vizer explained.
The 16-year-old Shahrkhani is one of two female athletes representing Saudi Arabia London, marking the first time women have competed for the country in the Olympics. (The other is Sarah Attar, an 800-meter runner raised in the United States who attends Pepperdine University.) The women were permitted to compete for the kingdom under the condition that they comply with modesty-preserving customs in accordance with Islamic sharia law, travel at all times with a male guardian, and refrain from “mixing with men,” as mandated by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.
With the hijab ban jeopardizing Shahrkhani’s opportunity to compete, the International Olympic Committee scrambled to mediate negotiations between Saudi and judo federation leaders. While IJF President Vizier cited safety concerns to justify the proposed ban, hijabs have been approved for use by judo federations in Asia and in other sports, such as weightlifting and pentathlon competitions. The increased interest in sports among Muslim women has even given rise to a burgeoning industry for sports-friendly hijabs, with companies like ResportOn, The Hijab Shop, and Capsters supplying head coverings for a wide range of athletic activities, from swimming and soccer to taekwondo.
With safe hijab models widely available and in use, the IJF’s opposition seems unfounded. This leads one to suspect more dubious motives, a la the decades-long French bias against conspicuous demonstrations of religious conviction, particularly in the form of the hot-button hijab. (Interestingly, the IJF publicized its afternoon of hobnobbing with newly elected French president François Hollande during the men’s judo competitions on Monday.)
On Wednesday, the Saudi Olympic committee reached what they termed a compromise. The agreement, according to IOC communications director Mark Adams, allowed Shahrkhani to compete wearing a version of the hijab “that is safety compliant but also allows for cultural sensitivity.”
Today, Shahrkhani finally made her Olympic debut. The Saudi woman, wearing her hijab, lasted a mere 82 seconds before losing her first-round match. “I was nervous and afraid, but proud,” she said afterwards. “I am proud to be the first Saudi woman and I’m very grateful to the crowd who supported me.” She added, “I will practice more.”