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Why is it so difficult for Muslim women to play sport?

Updated Friday, 18 August 2023
How are Muslim women represented by the media and what
implications does this have on their participation in sport? Rukhsana Malik
draws on her own experiences in this article.

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Disclaimer: This is an opinion article. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view or position of the faculty the author is associated with, or of The Open University.

The image shows back of a person wearing a hijab looking at trees as she walks on through them. She is wearing a white t-shirt and a black satchel over one shoulder. She is walking into a woodland area with dark trees. The year 2020 was supposed to be the year when I got back into shape and did something for myself. I have worked for over 25 years, apart from maternity leave, and I decided I needed to make myself the priority and joined a gym. I spoke to my manager who understood, being a working mother herself, she agreed I could change my hours to get some ‘me’ time in. I had worked out a routine whereby I could attend a gym when it was quiet and still carry on my other duties, but as the saying goes 'the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry' COVID-19 hit and I was left wondering, is there any way I will ever get to ‘me’?

What does this mean I hear you ask – it is only what many other people do. However, as an Asian, a female Muslim and a child of parents from Pakistan, sport has always been far from straightforward. Despite being born in Bletchley (UK), growing up in the 1980s was hard as not only were we a minority, we were one of very few families living in the area, so it was an emotional time. We were called ‘Paki’ frequently, although our roots were from Pakistan, we had been born here and so the word made no sense to us. Still it was fired at us with intention to insult. We went about life in a fearful way not only because of words but also direct incidents. Our house was a constant target for racism as we were one of the only Pakistani households in the area, and we were regularly subject to verbal and physical abuse. The colour of our skin was mocked as was our clothing.

It always makes me smile when I walk past the tanning aisles in a supermarket as people stand there selecting which shade of skin they would like to be. I can’t help but make cheeky eye contact with someone as they decide. The irony isn’t lost on me and nor has how clothing and fashion have changed over the years. Wearing bright colours along with sequin sandals that used to make us stand out like a sore thumb are now highly fashionable.

All we wanted was to be normal, have the freedom to play safely and do what all the other children did: swim, bike, roller skate and run. As it happens, we did all of that, sometimes in difficult circumstances, but we pushed through. As Muslims we are told to look after both our spiritual side as well as our physical side, demonstrated by the month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast for 30 days to increase their nearness to Allah as well as improve overall health. Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of intermittent fasting. Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, encouraged all Muslims to take part in sports and teach our children as well. In particular, he encouraged running, horsemanship and horseracing, swimming and archery, reinforcing the idea that a strong body is more capable of performing the obligations of life and religion. These are known as Sunnah from the Arabic word meaning ‘tradition’ but for Muslims it means ‘the way of the prophet’, therefore Sunnah sports.

A young child stands at the beginning of a track with hands on her hips looking ahead determinedly. She has a yellow track bib on and 'BP13' is marked in black on a background of red. Nowadays I see a lot of Muslim women, more than I ever saw while growing up, but many of them can’t swim or ride a bike and I wonder why so little progress has been made. Is it the case that there aren’t enough resources available, that busy lives stop them from pursuing sports, that they just don’t feel comfortable, or something else?

Muslim women in the media: a serious case of misrepresentation

The media does not seem to put Muslim women in a very positive light, as coverage is targeted and discriminatory, portraying us as either oppressed and violent or naïve and unintelligent. Even our own Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2018 compared Muslim women to ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letterboxes’. The media had a field day after that and it’s a regular occurrence to see Muslim women humiliated in some way.

The Muslim Council of Britain documented findings of a study they conducted in which they examined over 10,000 articles and clips referring to Muslims and Islam in the fourth quarter of 2018. Among other things, they found that over a third of all articles misrepresented or made generalisations about Muslims. There are many examples where the media have made generalised statements about women. One referred to a BBC 2 documentary concerning Sharia law and a female’s inability to make decisions by herself. This is just not true for many Muslim women that I know. Islam itself gives a high status to women who are the heart and centre of the home, I know quite a few Muslim women who are strong decision makers, they work hard to empower themselves and their husbands are supportive. The media would like to portray Muslim women as burka wearing objects, but this simply isn’t true. Women are oppressed all over the World, such as in our British society where there are inequalities in pay between men and women. Surely, Muslim women have the human right of freedom to choose what we wear and what we do, just like everyone else, as long as we all abide by the law and do not hurt anyone. 

Swim away!

I will never forget my first experience of swimming! At school we had swimming lessons once a week and it was all new to me. Just getting into the pool was embarrassing, with all eyes watching me with my luminous yellow leggings worn to maintain my modesty. As a way to maintain their dignity and show respect towards their bodies, many Muslim women will choose more modest attire. Women and men are not objectified in the way promoted by western cultures. Men are also required to dress modestly and to lower their gazes when they see women. This is the principle for all Abrahamic religions to avoid fornication, adultery and ultimately sin. I always think of this image when thinking about clashes of understanding between cultures.

This is a cartoon-style drawing of two women walking in opposite directions. One woman is wearing a bikini and carrying a beach bag; she is wearing high heels, jewellery and sunglasses. The other woman is wearing a black burqa covering all of her body except for her eyes. Each woman looks back at the other, and each has a ‘bubble’ telling us what they are thinking. The woman in the bikini is thinking: ‘Everything covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!’. The woman in the burqa is thinking: ‘Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated culture!’ I didn’t mind covering myself up in the pool and it was probably because I was the only one in this situation that I felt nervous. When I was in the water though, I was like everyone else and maybe even better at swimming. Sometime later when I had reached right up to bronze level and was taking my lifeguard qualification, I will never forget the sensation of the water enveloping me. All I had to do was concentrate on staying afloat and breathing. I could block out my insecurities, not have to worry about life and fitting into the world around me. I could clear my mind and enjoy the serenity; I had found my happy place.

However, as an adult I have found it challenging to keep swimming. For a start finding the right clothing was one big barrier as there was little in the way of Islamic style swimwear that maintained modesty and was safe to use in water. This was until the introduction of the Burkini a few years ago, which was something that would cover you up and allow you to swim. But this was not the solution it seemed to be as a friend of mine was told she had to get out of a local pool because she was wearing unsuitable clothing. She was told to leave despite explaining what a Burkini was. Even now, despite being more visible in UK pools it is banned in countries such as France causing humiliation and embarrassment to Muslim women there. My friend still won’t go back to ‘that’ pool because of bad memories associated with it.

In 2019 Nike introduced the Victory Swim collection designed for Muslim women, this was a great boost to women as they could swim in modest clothing. I’m sure pricing is higher than for traditional swimwear and burkinis but it means that Muslim women can swim with confidence. Actually, I rarely see women in classic bikinis when swimming, even though the mainstream media portrays every woman as having the so-called 'perfect' figure, the reality is far different. I think many women prefer to dress modestly for exercise, as it instils a certain confidence. Even female professional swimmers wear costumes with long legs and arms to help their performance.

woman wearing a burkini While talking about confidence, I know several Muslim women who don’t want to swim in a mixed pool with men. Despite what the media tells you, a Muslim woman’s modesty is like a security blanket to them, as it gives them confidence and peace of mind. Many Muslim women absolutely refuse to swim with men, other than their husbands and male kin. It goes back to the Muslim principles of trying to maintain modesty and avoid sin. This presents a challenge, because most pools don’t have a women’s only hour and when they do, they are usually scheduled during quiet times of the day when most people are at work. This leaves Muslim women with two options, either organising swimming sessions themselves, usually late in the evening, or to share a pool with men.

This can have an impact on a women’s confidence and peace of mind as they may be in a state of conflict about whether they should get into a pool with a man they are not related to. Not all Muslim women have this issue and I have seen many Muslim women get into a mixed pool. But it is worth considering as it can be a barrier to some cultures. Islam like all religions provides guiding principles in which to live by but it doesn’t dictate your every move. This scenario can also impact on young female Muslims who watch their mothers and the experiences they go through.

The same is true for a gym, as there are very few gyms available with space just for women. Even gyms with dedicated space, usually there is limited equipment. It’s as if gym owners are afraid to earmark resources just for women. On a wider note, many women in this country are main care givers to their children. Muslim women face the same challenge and many that I know have husbands who work shifts. Therefore, they are not able to leave children with them while they go out and exercise. There are few gyms that I know of that have a nursery/play area for children so parents can go and exercise while their child is being cared for but there are always additional costs that puts more barriers in place.

What does all this mean for Muslim women?

Unfortunately, it means that Muslim women, who can’t get to a gym or swim in places where they have privacy and feel confident, miss out on physical activity. This can have a profound effect on mental health, wellbeing and one’s ability to perform to their full capability. I know many Muslim women who have struggled to get time for themselves, especially after having children.

When I had my first child, I couldn’t find a sports activity that would be easily accessible to me with privacy where I could take my scarf off. Wearing a scarf is like wearing any other clothing, you get used to it but it can make you feel very hot and sweaty during exercise. I couldn’t find anywhere so ended up hiring a sports hall myself with the requirement that it had limited accessibility to anyone that shouldn’t be there so women didn’t have to worry about anyone walking in on them without notice and the opportunity to put their scarf back on if it was a male entering.

two women wearing hijabs looking at a computer I found one at a local academy available from 8pm with basketball and badminton facilities that were charged by the hour. I wasn’t sure if women would be interested in these two sports or if they would even turn up, but I decided to pay for it myself if they weren’t able to share the cost. As it happens word spread and soon there were women phoning me about availability. The results were phenomenal, not only did the women enjoy the sessions, I witnessed such a change in their disposition. At first some were hesitant and nervous to join in but very quickly started smiling and laughing as they furiously chased around for the ball. I was no basketball professional and we didn’t strictly play by the rules, at one point there was some wrestling going on as several women all went for the ball at once ended up rolling around the floor laughing. The happiness that spread into the atmosphere was cathartic. We all got to know each other and shared each other’s troubles and some days the group just wanted to talk.

Regarding representation of Muslim women in professional sport, we are starting to see progress. For instance, in the 2023 Women’s World Cup, we saw Nouhaila Benzina, who plays for the Moroccan national team, as the first player to wear a hijab on the pitch at a world cup. The FIFA 2023 computer game has also updated Benzina to be shown wearing her hijab.

What does the research say?

Well there isn’t much to be frank! Even Sport England only refers to an Active Lives survey combining two years’ worth of data between 2016 and 2018, observing lower levels of physical activity of Adults (16+) in Asian adults of Muslim faith (40%) compared to those from ethnic backgrounds but no statistical analysis regarding Muslim women. In fact, a general search on the Internet reveals little in the way of any studies at all. How then I question, can Sport England ever hope to achieve ‘everyone in England regardless of their age, background or level of ability to feel able to take part in sport and physical activity.’ I do note however that the strategy for 2021 and beyond is up for consultation. Therefore I would encourage anyone reading this to join the discussion on how to shape Sport England’s future strategy, as will I.

2 girls running on an athletics track with hijabs In conclusion, there are many factors affecting Muslim women’s participation in sport. These are the lack of appropriate facilities, lack of diverse activities and lack of focus. A lot of work needs to be done to get anywhere near where we need to be. I will certainly be engaging with Sport England to take this forward as I would love to see opportunities for Muslim women to have dedicated spaces in gyms and swimming pools where they can go and remove their headscarves without having to pay over the price to do it. More attention to detail needs to be made and by this I’m not saying Muslim women need space for themselves, they are happy to participate in women only areas. Surely this should prompt our nation to do more for women and sport. As things shift, I look forward to change and the possibilities it might bring but I know we Muslim women need to be part of the change and we cannot be complacent not only for ourselves but for our future generations.

Explore more articles in this collection of Women in sport.


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