Beach Volleyball in Iran?

How do conservative countries handle scantily clad Olympic athletes?

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the Beijing Games.

Roqaya al-Gassra of Bahrain in her hijab

Yesterday in Beijing, Roqaya al-Gassra of Bahrain won her heat in the second round of the women’s 200-meter dash while wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a head covering, in keeping with her practice of Islam. Many female Olympians wear athletic clothing that does not cover their bodies; are their events broadcast in conservative countries?

Yes, for the most part. Regional and foreign networks are broadcasting the Games, including Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Al Arabiya, as well as local channels. The foreign broadcasters are not altering their content to reflect local customs, but certain countries with legal dress codes for women might be censoring footage on state-operated channels. (Only a small proportion of the Muslim countries where women tend to dress modestly have compulsory dress codes; in Bahrain, for example, women are allowed to wear whatever they want.)

Government-owned television networks in Saudi Arabia and Iran will show women who are not wearing the hijab as long as they are not too scantily clad. In Iran, shorts seem to be OK, but swimsuits and leotards are out. (That means no swimming, gymnastics, or beach volleyball.) Events in which the athletes’ bodies are mostly covered—such as horseback riding and judo—are always acceptable. (The networks are also likely to be covering the three events in which Iranian women are competing: rowing, tae kwan do, and archery.) In Saudi Arabia, most people watch Olympics coverage on satellite TV, which is fully legal and carries no government restrictions.                                                                                             

Even though not all women’s events are broadcast on TV in Iran and Saudi Arabia, there are other ways to watch them. YouTube is broadcasting footage from the IOC in 77 countries across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, where no other entity holds exclusive digital-broadcasting rights. Some Internet-service providers in Iran block YouTube, but some Iranians with a broadband connection could watch footage online. Although the devices are illegal, several million Iranians have satellite dishes and could pick up uncensored Olympics coverage on Al Jazeera and the BBC.

Muslim women can also watch female athletes compete at the Muslim Women’s Olympics, an event first held in Iran in 1993. Photography and filming are banned in the sporting arenas, men are not permitted inside, and the athletes are allowed to compete without a hijab. The last set of games was in 2005 and featured athletes from 25 countries competing in 15 sports.

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Explainer thanks Aisha Shaheed and Rochelle Terman of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Dawn Arteaga and Natasha Tynes of the International Center for Journalists, Majid Joneidi of the BBC, and Nail Al-Jubeir of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.