The Hijab and The Turban: Why American Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is Important

Ibitihaj Muhammad
Ibitihaj Muhammad

Ibitihaj Muhammad was invited to speak at South by Southwest (SXSW), the popular culture, media, technology conference in Austin, Texas. When she arrived to check into the conference, she was asked to remove her hijab so that a photo ID could be taken.

During the panel discussion entitled, “The New Church: Sport as Currency of American Life”, Muhammad said “I had a crappy experience checking in. Someone asked me to remove my hijab isn’t out of the norm for me. Do I hope it changes soon? Yes, every day.”

Muhammad is the first Muslim woman to join Team USA and represent America in the Olympics. She is a sabre fencer who got into fencing when she noticed as a young teenager that fencers have to cover their entire body from head to toe. In other words, she can wear her hijab and compete without any concern for what people will think or feel.

But fencing may be one of those uncommon sports where one can wear something on your head without a rule being invoked or disapproving stares cast your way.

In August 2014, officials of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) at an international basketball tournament in China insisted that two Sikh players representing the India team play without their turbans. Why? Because FIBA rules state that “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players”, which apparently includes hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes.

Despite the fact that the opposing players in that game did not mind that the Indian players wore turbans, and that the coach of the Indian team, Scott Flemming had apparently already attained approval from FIBA for his players to wear turbans, FIBA officials at the game still decided that the rules were the rules.

I know that US bureaucracy has a few rules for headshots for passports and driving licenses, and I know they don’t allow you to wear anything on your head. But as it turns out, the US government realizes that while rules are rules, you do need to be flexible in maintaining other rules (e.g.: the first amendment of the US constitution). The US State Department clearly states that there is an exception for headgear used “for religious purposes” are allowed, as long as the face is fully visible.

US Passport Photo Rules Headgear
US State Department passport photo rules

Hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes in various sports like basketball and soccer have not proven to be a safety risk, any more than any other piece of clothing worn during a competition. And yet, the fact that Muhammad is in the news because she is wearing a hijab in addition to the fact that she is a gifted athlete, and that I am writing this blog post indicates that the hijab and the turban are less about safety and more about a conflict of values.

There is power in being the first. It would be wonderful for Muhammad to do well at the Rio Olympics, to show a whole generation of Muslim women in America (and perhaps in other countries) that values and attitudes can change, and that new possibilities for them are opening up.

Moon Tae Jong of South Korea (L) passes
Moon Tae Jong of South Korea (L) passes a ball as Amjyot Singh of India (R) defends during their preliminary round match between South Korea and India at the 26th Asian Basketball Championships in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on September 17, 2011. South Korea won 84-53. AFP PHOTO / LIU JIN (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)