• It’s excellent to see these Muslim women competing, but it’s not, as every headline I’ve seen seems to trumpet, “breaking stereotypes”. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Muslim women are not a novelty, nor is it surprising to see them succeed.
Amal Awad

22 Aug 2016 - 2:36 PM  UPDATED 30 Jan 2019 - 4:33 PM

Here’s my confession: I’m not an avid viewer of the Olympics. In fact, calling myself a casual observer would be an overstatement.

So, I didn’t get caught up in the fervour of Rio 2016, though it’s impossible to avoid if you’re on social media. And a few things stood out to me: western nations continued to obsess over winning gold; and non-western nations were praised and cooed over by their more successful athletic overlords.

Look, I’m pretty sure my disinterest relates to my lack of athletic prowess. But my rejection of it stems from the corrupted symbolism of the Games. Because, to me, the Olympics are far more about (sometimes healthy) sports competition than the cordial global relations it seeks to enhance; no matter how warm a welcome the Refugee Olympic Team gets in a stadium, in the real world, they have been received with censure and discrimination.

Let’s just get real: the Olympics is about winning, and more specifically, it’s focused on the performances of the more privileged Western nations. So it’s difficult to stomach the idea that it’s about everyone, including competitors from smaller, poorer nations. While no doubt the event is, and should be, significant for all competitors, from a Western perspective, the competitiveness of non-Western nations is reduced to a novelty.

It’s excellent to see these Muslim women competing, but it’s not, as every headline I’ve seen seems to trumpet, “breaking stereotypes”.

Consider how most of the coverage about non-western competitors is condescending filler. It’s feel-good clickbait that does nothing more than emphasise difference, and confirm worldviews that the west is superior in its treatment of women. Or it’s a temporary salve to make us feel better about the cruel realities of life – that there are racist people in the world who make life hard for others; that there are people living under occupation or in war zones; and that many westerners simply aren’t comfortable with people from ethnic minorities outdoing them on their home turf.

Nowhere is this more apparent than coverage of female Muslim competitors who wear a headscarf or a unique uniform designed for modesty. It’s excellent to see these Muslim women competing, but it’s not, as every headline I’ve seen seems to trumpet, “breaking stereotypes”.

I ask you: what stereotype, exactly, are you thinking of?

Maybe it’s my age (late 30s), my location (a Sydneysider my whole life), or my cynicism (a little is healthy), but I am truly baffled that we (media and the general public) in the west are trading in the idea that Muslim women fit a neat ‘stereotype’. Is it the veiled, oppressed woman who has no life? Is that idea not only limiting but also disproven?

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A Melbourne cafe matches up Muslim women with non-Muslim people to discuss and debunk negative perceptions of Muslim women.

There is absolutely no denial that Muslim women, like many other women, are dealing with hardship. Indeed, it would be silly to suggest that anything around women is black-and-white. Within that hardship, there are layers not everyone sees. Which is why this continued simplification is troubling. We do it with women everywhere. In the west, ‘rape culture’ is under the microscope, and women still deal in public shaming, the idea being upheld that somehow they are responsible for the crime committed against them.

What seems to happen with Muslim women, however, is a stripping away of their own agency and capacity to think for themselves. In fact, as I do research for my next book on Arab women, I am met at every interview by women who, despite their hardships, are not defined by their religion, culture or appearances.

The issue with this repetition of the Muslim woman stereotype, and the positive smashing of it, is that this woman you’re talking about is a figment of western imagination. She has no feelings, no agency, no mind of her own. She has no desire to improve her life, but when she does, she is believed to want the life of the western woman.

It’s a dangerous caricature, and one that can admittedly run both ways. In today’s world, it’s not about levels of freedom or oppression, it’s about the hijab versus the bikini, with nothing in between.

It doesn’t help that an athlete may feel compelled to address these lingering, disproven “stereotypes”. Could we perhaps think that, instead of stereotypes being broken, they are barriers?

While I can understand the curiosity, the crowing of the magnanimous western aunt is shrill and condescending to say the least. We continue to judge and assess “progress” based on western views of a good and equal life.

The issue with this repetition of the Muslim woman stereotype, and the positive smashing of it, is that this woman you’re talking about is a figment of western imagination.

Why not just congratulate these women on their success, rather than perpetuate unforgiving stereotypes that, by their very nature, are designed to categorise and limit people to make outsiders feel comfortable?

While the presence of a veiled competitor may seem unusual or groundbreaking to some, there are other factors to consider when pondering on why it’s taken so long. They might be fighting for a spot back home, but that’s a fight that belongs to them, not western saviours. An important consideration is that women competing in sports while wearing hijab has long caused issues when it comes to uniform. Soccer players, for example, fought for years for the right to wear a slightly amended uniform to the standard shorts and top other players wear.

I would go so far as to say it’s something many of us experience outside of a sports event. As a woman who has freely identified as Arab and Muslim throughout my life, I experienced the sort of insidious racism and bigotry that seems innocuous until it turns into outright bullying. It’s the westerner feeling comfortable about your presence until you start to exhibit confidence and personality. You might even perform more strongly than them. That’s when the warm, fuzzy support turns into fear and anger. You need to stay in your box because you don’t truly belong.

Not every story you click on is supported by lofty ideals, no matter how “positive” it is. Under pressure, journalists write for clicks. But they will not continue to write and profit from false headlines if you don’t click and share. Be a responsible audience.

The Muslim women competing in the Olympics aren’t there to change your perception of Muslim women and make you feel better about their status. They’re there for themselves. And I’m sure, given the chance, they will also speak for themselves.

How’s that for groundbreaking?


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