Friday, June 20, 2008

Hijab on Tatami

Sports and sportswear. It's a hot debate in swimming, but now too in martial arts !The International Olympic Committee has granted the Iranian athlete Fatemeh Barzanooni (taekwondo) the right to wear the hijab during her games in Peking.

The decision is the result of a delicate balancing act between a concern for neutrality (see the Olympic Charter), enhancing female participation in the games, religious and political sensitivities, and case management. The bottom line seems to be that the IOC granted permission because otherwise a reputed athlete would simply stay away from the games.

Annie Sugier, president of the Ligue du Droit International des Femmes, and involved in Atlanta+, a pressure group dedicated to bring more women into the olympic arena, has fiercely condemned the IOC decision. The League's principled position on this issue is here as a downloadable pdf.

For Atlanta+, the decision violates the olympic idea of neutrality. The IOC for its part maintains that the athlete's demand is not ideological and is not serving propaganda purposes. Should Barzanooni not be allowed to wear the hijab, she would simply stay away.

In the now famous words of Donald Rumsfeld it could be said that the athlete's intentions belong to the realm of the 'known unknowns'. There is nothing to be said of them other than they are. So for ease and tranquility, let's assume Barzanooni's intentions are pure and personal so that nothing ideological and malevolent can be held against her personally.

And it's not as if she is a first. There have been precedents. In the past, other (Iranian) athletes have been allowed to wear the hijab; read this informative article on muslim women athletes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. At least two things stand out from this text.

One is that trouble over dress requirements for female athletes seemingly comes from conservative regimes and (sub)cultures, rather than from islam per se. Indonesia has behaved rather relaxed so far; Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Saoudi-Arabia on the other hand have been more petulant.

A second observation is this : the inclination of muslims to turn a sports event into a religious hang-up reveals the near total fusion of public and private spheres inherent in islam. The astonishing market success of the so-called 'burqini' for instance, points in that direction as well. (Aheda Zanetti, Australia, see pic below)

One and two taken together make for a detrimental cocktail. For independent of individual intentions, islam forcefully legitimizes conservatism, which in turn triggers a downward spiral of interiorization and societal enforcement.

Given these negative dynamics, it really doesn't matter what the athelete thinks or hopes or intends. The mere visual presence of islamic garments on the stage of highly publicized events like the Olympic Games marks the conceptual exception and the priviliged status islam claims for itself. It is antithetical by definition, and as such, it IS ideological.

Perhaps the IOC should take care to uphold the glory and spirit of human kind that take center stage at the olympics, rather than preemptively vacating that spot for the sake of an old and obviously testy god ?

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