Muslim women wearing headscarves has been a contentious issue in some sporting circles. Martin Healy talked to four Muslim students about their experiences with it in UCD.
THE beauty of soccer is that anyone with a ball and a patch of space can play. Sport can be an outlet for anyone, no matter where you may be from, or what circumstance you were raised in. So a governing body banning specific people from playing seems ridiculous. And it happened, for a time.
In 2014, FIFA lifted a ban that previously stopped female Muslim soccer players from wearing traditional headscarves such as the hijab. The ban initially appeared in 2007 for “health and safety” reasons, but this was quickly debunked. By many in the community, it was perceived as an anti-Muslim slight, wrapped up in an excuse about safety.
Is this attitude still prevalent closer to home? We sat down with four Muslim students in order to get some perspective on this issue in and around Belfield, as well as a look at what it’s like to balance religion and sport.
Signs are certainly positive in UCD. Raneem Saleh, originally from Saudi Arabia, has played sports like basketball and soccer in UCD. Although she has limited her sporting activities due to time constraints, she was positive about participating:
“There was never an issue. I signed up two years ago… came to training in my headscarf and [I’d] do the drills just like the rest of the girls. It not never like a barrier. [It wasn’t] causing any tension or conflict.”
Nafisa Millat – born in Ireland – echoed these sentiments. “I didn’t feel like I was treated any differently” she stated. Millat played soccer and basketball when she was younger, and takes part in Ultimate Frisbee on campus.
According to Salma Ramadan, UCD clubs have been “quite neutral” on the topic of headscarves. Ramadan has been active in sports since a young age, and took up tennis in UCD for a time.
“I mean I wasn’t treated any differently because I was wearing a headscarf. It’s just that in Islam women are asked to dress modestly… So it’s really up to us as Muslim women to ensure that when we do sign up to play a sport, that we will be able to dress comfortably and modestly the way we normally would.”
If anything, Ramadan admitted that wearing a headscarf made her more comfortable playing tennis. During her time playing tennis, she noticed that “I was treated kind of more respectfully by guys, like the headscarf puts boundaries in place between me and getting too friendly with guys, which is fine with me.”
“…my twin brother, God bless him, would be out on basketball courts playing for five hours in the heat and the humid climate, no water no nothing, but he was grand!”
“In Islam, men and women are meant to have respectful and normal conversations and interactions but we’re just not meant to be very overly friendly… The headscarf kind of established that rule and that boundary which I really appreciated.”Balancing sporting activities around religious duties is not simple. Saleh stated she never found it be me a major issue but mentioned how occasionally she’d “be late to some practice because I had to pray before, or else I’d miss the news prayer after.” Ramadan echoed these sentiments, saying UCD’s prayer room made things “very convenient” for her to fit daily praying alongside her training.
The month of Ramadan, which requires an active participant to not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset for thirty days, can affect an active sportsperson wildly depending on their own body. Saleh felt that “it’s not as tiring as it might seem to be”, but others felt differently. Ramadan herself was honest about how her namesake can be a difficult month. Although she echoed that it differs from person to person, she described the balance as “intensely, insanely difficult.”
“I just don’t think my body was built with that kind of energy, she stated, but not everyone finds it to be a difficult struggle. “Two summers ago we were in Egypt during Ramadan with my family, and my twin brother, God bless him, would be out on basketball courts playing for five hours in the heat and the humid climate, no water no nothing, but he was grand!”
Mahdiyah Ayub — who has played sport her whole life — felt it’s “always hard” to play during Ramadan, but training programmes, alongside specific tactics, are changed or employed in order to accommodate it. These involve limiting the amount of sprints taken during a soccer match, for example, in order to limit the need for water.
Having the confidence to wear a headscarf, something which physically separates you from non-Muslim teammates, remains a challenge for Aub. She has a long history with sport – from swimming to taekwondo to playing Gaelic football and camogie throughout her teenage years.
“There was still the perception that Muslim girls shouldn’t play sports because of male trainers, but it didn’t stop me.”
During Fresher’s Week in first year, she admitted that she paid to join the swimming and football clubs, but ultimately didn’t go through with it. “I backed out [at the] last minute out of pure shyness and anxiety of people accepting the fact I wear the scarf. I still haven’t been to the gym at college for the same reason. It’s stupid I know but what can you do.”
Ayub was candid and honest regarding her lack of participation in UCD clubs. She described herself as not “brave enough” to try it, “for the fear [of] not being received nicely.” “I have always been put into a box that Muslims shouldn’t play sports,” she continued, “because of the way you have to dress… however it doesn’t matter to me because I always wear loose baggy sports gear.”
While Ayub doesn’t take part in clubs in UCD, she has other sporting outlets. In the wake of FIFA lifting the headscarf ban, members of Sports Against Racism Ireland started Diverse City Football Club (DCTC) as part of their “Hijabs and Hat-tricks” programme. The club is Ireland’s first female-focused Muslim soccer club, and Ayub joined the club in 2014. She described it as “[a] safe space to play football with the scarf. The majority of clubs wouldn’t allow Muslims to play for ‘health and safety.”
DCFC gave Ayub a chance to get to enjoy the sport on her own terms. She mentioned how “even schools wouldn’t allow [headscarves] so all you could do was sit at home or sacrifice your beliefs for something you loved to do.”
“I sacrificed my beliefs for sports and many people in the community looked down on me for it. Once I started playing for DC there was still the perception that Muslim girls shouldn’t play sports because of male trainers, but it didn’t stop me.”