Wednesday 26 July 2017

Tommy Conlon: Arrival of hijab signals violation of sport's safe haven

thecouch@independent.ie

'Perhaps if Nike were really serious about equality for all female athletes, as opposed to breaking into new markets, it would have done the opposite. It would have insisted on not making any sort of sports hijab at all'
'Perhaps if Nike were really serious about equality for all female athletes, as opposed to breaking into new markets, it would have done the opposite. It would have insisted on not making any sort of sports hijab at all'

Tommy Conlon

Given their long-standing collusion in the great Lance Armstrong swindle, the Nike corporation proved demonstrably it cared little for fairness - one of sport's bedrock values.

Recently it revealed how little it cares for another fundamental principle: equality.

This is probably the most important of the sporting virtues. It is its moral foundation. Every man and every woman is equal when they cross the white line. It does not matter who you are or where you've come from. The disadvantages and discrimination one has suffered for reasons of class, or colour, or religion are set to zero just as the stopwatch is set to zero before a race.

All that matters is what you can do. This is the beating heart of its moral authority: not who you are, but what you do. The vast global web of organised sport is the greatest project for a pure meritocracy that mankind has devised. Its findings are empirical not prejudicial, scientific not sentimental. The clock establishes your place in the hierarchy; the measuring tape; the performance statistics. They are blind to your colour, creed and class.

Despite its many historical prejudices, mainly against women and non-whites, sport has for long been a sanctuary from the ruinous divisions of wider society. It is a safe space for those who endure discrimination in their civilian lives. Anyone who is so inclined can walk into a changing room, remove their civilian clothes and put on the uniform of jersey, shorts and socks. Here is the transformation from an individual identity to a shared humanity: you are one of us, we are at one with you.

It is the glory of the sporting life that the moment you walk in that door, it does not matter who you were before, or who you will be again when you later walk out through that door.

But now this sacred tenet is being challenged as never before. Some sportsmen and women wish to bring their religion with them into the changing room and onto the field.

When Brazil won the 2002 Fifa World Cup final, some of its players openly paraded their Christian devotion with T-shirts and public prayer. In English cricket, the Sikh turban is becoming increasingly visible. In 2014, Fifa rescinded its ban on religious head covers. Basketball's international governing body, Fiba, is expected to do likewise this May. And two weeks ago Nike unveiled a new garment, the Pro Hijab.

And so, those of us who would prefer only to see athletes as athletes must now see how they are different too. Those of us who view sport as the great bastion of common humanity must now see it splintered into the tribes that divide the rest of society too. We can no longer be blind to someone's religion on the pitch because they don't want us to be blind to it. The safe haven is being violated.

And all in the name of diversity, apparently, because diversity is more important than harmony.

Nike's news was welcomed by Shireen Ahmed in The Guardian last Wednesday week. Ahmed, according to her website, is a Canada-based "writer, public speaker and Sports Activist focusing on Muslim women in Sports".

Her article also refers to "Muslim athletes". But the whole point of sport is that there are just men and women, athletes who are good, middling and bad - and nothing else. We're not supposed to care if you are Muslim, Sikh or Christian.

The only valid identity question is along the lines of "Are you any good?" Don't tell us who you are, because it doesn't matter; show us what you can do.

Ahmed says that with the Pro Hijab Nike has taken "a leap into modest sportswear". Is it the assumption therefore that other women wear immodest sportswear? She adds that Nike collaborated with "Muslim athletes in the Middle East" and also released a new ad campaign "featuring women from the Middle East and North Africa".

But perhaps if Nike were really serious about equality for all female athletes, as opposed to breaking into new markets, it would have done the opposite.

It would have insisted on not making any sort of sports hijab at all. Instead it can now be accused of pandering to what the writer Mona Eltahawy describes as "the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East",

Eltahawy is an Egypt-born feminist and campaigner. Her book Headscarves and Hymens is a devastating critique of the treatment of women in Arab societies. "Name me an Arab country," she writes, "and I'll recite a litany of abuses against women occurring in that country."

The wearing of various head, face and body covers is part of a war on women, she says. There is tremendous pressure on them to wear at least a hijab. It is a form of control, the visible manifestation of an oppressive "purity culture".

It is difficult not to see the arrival of the hijab in sport as an extension of that control into the one great human activity that was hitherto a shining beacon against all identity politics.

And it begs the question: how much freedom of choice will Muslim women athletes have in deciding whether or not to cover up, now that the great huckster of corporate sport has actually designed custom-made headscarves for them?

Just do it. It's the Nike slogan. Women hear it a lot in Arab societies too. A perfect fit, therefore, between money and religion - with sport the pawn of them both.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport