How A Hijab Controversy Almost Undermined The Olympics’ Goal Of Increasing Female Participation

Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia and the International Olympic Committee agreed to add two female athletes to the conservative Muslim kingdom’s Olympic team, marking the first time in Olympic history that women would participate under the Saudi flag. Two days ago, one of those women nearly withdrew from the Games.

Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, one of the two Saudi women, learned this week that she would not be allowed to wear her traditional hijab during competition because the International Judo Federation worried that it would threaten her safety. Faced with the possibility of participating without her hijab — a decision that would violate her religious beliefs — Shaherkani threatened to withdraw.

The IJF’s eventual compromise, reached yesterday, to allow Shaherkani to wear a headscarf was always obvious, given the Asian Judo Federation allows women to compete wearing hijabs and top judokas said it wouldn’t cause safety issues, making such concerns seem illegitimate. But for whatever reason, this issue keeps arising in international sport, creating a needless tension between the ideal of increasing female participation in sports and respecting their religious freedoms while doing so.

Safety of athletes should, of course, should be a concern, but participation should remain the most prominent goal. The IOC has gone to great lengths to increase participation of women in the Olympics, particularly women from countries like Saudi Arabia. But those efforts also go far beyond these Olympic Games. Saudi women are still struggling to gain any (much less equal) participation in sports in their own country, and had the SAOC and IJF let an unnecessary hijab controversy get in the way of that fight, it not only would have ruined Shaherkani’s opportunity, it would have put another barrier in front of Muslim women who want to play sports. That would have been a tragic ending to an otherwise wonderful story, and though the IJF ultimately made the right decision, it came dangerously close to undermining the fight that got Shaherkani to London in the first place.