New kit gets Muslims on track

Amid the furore over the state of undress of one of the United Kingdom's most ­successful female cyclists in a photo shoot for a magazine, the increasing acceptance of sportswear that allows Muslim women to compete has garnered ­little attention.

Earlier this month Fifa finally overturned its ban, brought in in 2007, on women playing football with their heads covered. The decision came too late for the Iranian football team. The ban had already prevented them from playing in their 2012 Olympic qualifying match last year and disappointed their female fans in the football-mad Islamic republic, where women are not allowed to watch men's matches and headscarves are mandatory. But the overturning of the ban was cheered by footballers around the world, some of whom, such as Australian Assmaah Helal, wear the hijab by choice.

London 2012 is the first Olympics where women will compete in all 26 sports on offer (although still in 30 fewer events in total) and Fifa is just one of several international bodies to relax clothing rules allowing more Muslim women to take part in the Games. Women competing with their heads covered include judoka Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani and runner Sarah Attar from Saudi Arabia, as well as footballers.

Last year the International Weightlifting Federation began to allow female weightlifters to cover their arms and legs, which led to the United Arab Emirates female team being the first to compete in hijabs.

What female athletes wear should get less attention than it does, but sports clothing can be a barrier to competition for many women who want to cover up.

Egyptian pentathlete Aya Medany considered not competing at all in the Olympics because female swimmers in her event have to wear suits that leave their necks, arms and half their legs uncovered.

Health and safety concerns
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will become the first person to represent the United States at the Olympics wearing a hijab, says she chose her sport because it allowed her to cover her body.

Dr Emma Tarlo, author of Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, said such barriers to participation should not be underestimated.

"I have done research that shows that women have been put off sport because of clothing. Others have been excluded because of what they wear."

This was why, she said, the new type of "sports hijab" had been so helpful. Tarlo cited the capster, a hood-style hijab that was created by Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen, who started working on the design in 1999 after cases of girls being excluded from physical education lessons for wearing the hijab. It was designs such as this, Tarlo said, that addressed health and safety concerns and allowed bans to be overturned.

It is not just the practicality of the design that helps, but rather  the image it portrays. "Traditional scarves stick out in sport and are not made from appropriate materials. Because the new styles look sporty, the wearer is not highlighted as different in the same way."

Tarlo said hijab-wearing athletes were role models for many Muslim women and girls.

Rimla Akhtar from the Muslim Women in Sport Foundation said there were other barriers holding women back, but it was important for women to have a choice: "A way has been found of combining women's passion for sport with their passion for their faith and the sports hijab will certainly aid women's participation in sport at all levels." – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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