Challenges facing Muslim athletes


(NEW YORK) — Maymah, a weightlifter and social media influencer who just goes by her first name, was part of Gymshark’s sports hijab launch in London.

When asked about what it’s like working out or weightlifting with a regular hijab, she says, “If I was doing something like running or skipping when there’s a lot of head movement, it could be quite annoying and it distracts you from your actual workout.”

So when her manager told her about Gymshark’s sports hijab, she immediately agreed to join their campaign. 
The sports hijab is a one piece adjustable head scarf designed to stay in place, so that hijabis don’t have to wear a cap underneath their scarf and use pins.

Gymshark isn’t the first company to design a sports hijab. Ibtihaj Muhammad made history in 2016 as the first U.S. Olympic athlete to compete in a hijab made by Nike.

She says, “it was an opportunity, I think, to show Muslim women around the globe that there is no limits to what we’re capable of… and sport, I’ve always believed, is a place for everyone to exist.”

However, athleticwear isn’t the only challenge for Muslim athletes. Once a year, Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan – including athletes, even those who compete at elite levels.

“I competed for Team USA for about 11 years and Ramadan was just a part of, you know, life. And though it’s difficult, I do find fasting to be like riding a bike. And as an athlete you learn how to prepare your body for, you know, the month of Ramadan,” Ibtihaj shares.

Abstaining from food and drink isn’t the only challenge for her. 

“If we as a community, society, made more of an effort to really understand why Muslims are fasting and really making more inclusive spaces, in a sense that especially young athletes feel comfortable talking about the fact that they’re fasting, making spaces more comfortable for athletes to even express that like, yes, not even water we can have water, I think would go a long way.”

Progress is being made, however. There’s now more Muslim representation in sports. From Ibtihaj on that grand stage in the Rio Olympics, to Adama Sanogo, a UConn basketball player who led his team to the NCAA Men’s Basketball championship while fasting, alongside fasting teammates Samson Johnson and Hassan Diarra. 
There’s also some accommodation. The English Premiere League this year began pausing soccer matches for Muslim athletes to break their fasts.

“Growing up I can only think of a couple of athletes to even look up to as role models let alone now the situations and scenarios we see like the Premiere League example and like hockey player like Nazem Kadri that wins the Stanley Cup and decides, every player gets a day with the cup to celebrate with their friends and family, and he decides I’m going to bring this championship to my childhood mosque. And the Stanley Cup had never stepped foot in a mosque previous to that.” says Arda Ocal, one of the few Muslim sports anchors for ESPN.
He says there’s something to admire about Muslims who compete while fasting.

“The science of peak level athletics is fascinating to begin with and how they become champions etc but to add a layer to that, one that’s already grueling and challenging like fasting during Ramadan but then still competing at those highest levels, that’s remarkable.”

Muslim athletes have told him, it isn’t always easy, but…

“They like putting their bodies to the test in that way, to give them an extra layer of challenge. Continuing to compete and continuing to train while fasting gives them something to look forward to and they feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment when they’re able to do that.”

To Arda, it’s about planting seeds for the next generation.

“If I’m inspiring one kid out there to say wow that name looks similar to mine or this person has the same faith as me or we’re from the same part of the world, maybe I can do this, I see myself in this person… that’s extremely important to me.”

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