Uncovered: the Complicated Relationship between Sport and Hijab

By Cassandra Bockstael
Sport is consistently based in discrimination. Often competitions are single gender exclusive, categories are created depending on weight, age, (dis)ability or nationality. This organisation of the sport system is based on what would, in any other context, amount to illegal discrimination.  Yet almost all major sporting competitions are structured around those rules. Consequently, this raises the question of when and to what extent are those conditions allowed?  

In 1999 the European Commission has stated that federations are free to organise and categorise  sport “provided that these measures are objectively justified, non-discriminatory, necessary and proportional”. It means that sporting rules define the competing group and that everyone belonging to this group should be treated equally.  In addition, it is required that these provisions are provided by “law”. For example, in the Olympic Charter, it is provided that “there may be no age limit for competitors in the Olympics other than as prescribed in the competition rules of an International Federation as approved by the International Olympic Committee”. Consequently, the regulations developed by federations constitute specific legal systems in themselves. So the federations are free to enact “laws” in order to ensure the good conduct of sporting events.

Nevertheless, some rules like dress codes might pose problems amounting to discrimination. All sports have specific competition dress codes, and while some might be justified by the sport itself (eg. martial arts), other are justified by marketing and perhaps, cynics may say, in order to make the sport more popular (such as volley ball bikini).  Recently, the situation of Muslim athletes came back into media limelight when Decathlon announced the production of a sports hijab. However, despite this attempt to create inclusivity, it is a harsh reality that many women who have certain beliefs will be excluded from sport because they follow specific clothing rules which fall outside of competition dress codes. 

“It is a harsh reality that many women who have certain beliefs will be excluded from sport “

The Olympic Charter clearly states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” There is no debate on the fact that wearing hijab is clearly a demonstration of religious belief, which in this case is prohibited. However, in order to favour the participation of women, the International Olympic Committee has allowed women to wear the headscarf during competitions. The first woman to wear the hijab in an Olympic competition was the Iranian Lyda Fariman during the Atlanta Games of 1996. The International Olympic Committee CIO leaves the choice to the sport federations as to whether to allow the headscarf during sport competitions, and, somewhat surprisingly, several leading federations have allowed sportswomen to wear the hijab and consequently derogate from the standard dress code of the competitions. For example, the International Federation of Volley Ball changed its dress code in 2012 to allow women to compete in outfit other than a bikini. In addition, the International  Association of Athletic Federation  and the World Karate Federation in 2013 changed their rules to increase the participation of women in the sport and to promote the discipline. Other federations such as football, judo and beach volley required more persuasion. With regard to judo, the prohibition of headscarf  was justified by the risk of strangulation during the fight. However, after being on the receiving end of pressure from the father of Wodjan Ali Seraj Adbulrahim Shahrkhani, a Saudi athlete, the International Judo Federation decided to allow her to compete with a bonnet to cover her hair. Finally, the International Football Association Board allowed women to wear the hijab on the field in2012, following this decision FIFA authorised the same in 2014. This created debate among the French Football Federation which still prohibits headscarf [invoking the secularism of the French State.

The topic of hijab is closely related to gender equality in sport. The main argument for federations to allow women to wear the veil is the to promote sport and enhance the inclusion of all women, irrespective of religion. It is deplorable to see hostile reactions coming from some national federations and it is clear that the debate is marred by politics. However, the practice of many federations to allow the hijab within sporting competitions demonstrates a growing development towards protecting women’s integrity while allowing her participation in sporting competitions while ensuring no indirect discrimination of women through dress codes when such an outfit is not related to safety, which could be seen as a legitimate aim (as with Judo).

Even if some important actions have been taken by some national and international federations, actions to improve gender equality are, however, not the norm. The self-regulation process of federations is slow and there is still no elaborated body of antidiscrimination law (in contrast to anti-doping law, for example). Actions may occur sporadically, however there needs to be a strong cooperation and coordination mechanism between the different actors in order to achieve gender equality in sport and the effective participation of women.

After obtaining her bachelor in law at the Catholic University of Louvain, Cassandra graduated in 2018 from the University of Antwerp (LLM). She mostly resided in Antwerp but also travelled to Sydney and Geneva to obtain her major in Human Rights and Sustainable Development. She is mostly interested in issues related to children and armed conflict, terrorism and transitional justice.