The Female Athletes Who Are Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't

In the past month, religious women have been prevented from participating in soccer, basketball, and weightlifting — all because their faith dictates they cover their heads, necks, arms, legs, or some combination thereof. If three makes a trend, then it looks like we're on the way to seeing an unofficial consensus from athletics organizations about whether devoutly religious women can play sports at all.

Basketball player Naama Shafir was barred from playing for the Israeli National Team in the European women's basketball championship because as an Orthodox Jew she is required to wear a t-shirt to cover her shoulders during play. The University of Toledo, where Shafir is a student athlete, has always allowed her to wear a t-shirt under her jersey. While that kind of accommodating tomfoolery might be okay in the states, officials at the Munich-based international basketball association, FIBA, are being pretty German about the whole thing, having strictly forbidden her to participate if she won't compromise her religious beliefs by removing the t-shirt: "The global rules of the game clearly state that a team must be uniformly dressed, and the rules must always be upheld." They're not even bothering with the safety rationale — harsh.

Although Shafir has previously gotten special permission from her rabbi to play on the Sabbath, she is not willing to further compromise her beliefs in order to participate in the tournament. Rules are rules and religion is religion, but isn't there some kind of compromise here? There's gotta be some kind of nude upper-arm stocking at American Apparel that would do the trick.

Meanwhile, Kulsoom Abdullah, a 35-year-old Muslim weightlifter in Atlanta, recently found out that the International Weightlifting Confederation is considering her request to wear a uniform that covers her head, neck, arms, and legs instead of the skimpy onesie weightlifters are usually required to wear. Judges need to be able to see the weightlifter's joints to ensure proper technique, but Abdullah's trainer insists that her proposed outfit — a combination of athletic pants, fitted long-sleeve shirt and head scarf — would not interfere with the judging process. Abdullah rightly points out that since the U.S. Olympic Committee requires "equal opportunity to participate in amateur athletic competition without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin," she shouldn't be kept from competing for being Muslim. And if a different uniform is what a Muslim requires, fair is fair.

The bodies that govern elite-level athletics vary widely on their acceptance of religious garments during play. While female boxers from Afghanistan are allowed to wear headscarves, the Iranian women's soccer team was recently disqualified from the 2012 Olympics for wearing them, after FIFA deemed any neck covering to be a safety hazard. What does this mean for the Iranian women's soccer team? According to the former head coach Shahrzad Mozafar, "This ruling means that women's soccer in Iran is over." Now that FIFA has disallowed the headscarves, Iran will no longer be sending the women abroad to play.

It doesn't end there, albeit on a less religious note: A few weeks ago, the Badminton World Federation invited controversy when they attempted to raise the sport's profile by requiring female players to wear skirts. The proposal enraged pretty much everyone in the world, and the BWF quickly backpedaled, first delaying the skirt-rule start date, and then deciding to broaden their focus on better presentation of the game to include male as well as female players. Presumably this means skirts for everyone? If it's popularity their after, men in skirts would be much more compelling — you don't see that on the court every day.

Basically, female athletes — particularly devoutly religious ones — can't win here. They can either wear the "correct" uniform and violate the rules of their religion, or they can refuse and are thus unable to play the sport they love. Both options suck. Why can't the organizations that govern these sports just let them play in their god-approved headscarves (there are plenty of athletics-friendly options out there) and be done with it, instead of forcing unfair choices and crushing dreams? It seems odd that for some women, combining two things that are commonly thought of as "virtues" — religion and athleticism — means you open yourself up to prejudice and discrimination. Not a great argument for virtue.

If we're determined to find a silver lining here, we can...ish: There are enough women competing in sports, and prominently so, to warrant disputes about what they can wear. It's a damn shame that the nature and specifics of their visibility has to be addressed, but at least they're on the playing field. Which, in its own weird way, is something to half-smile about.

Atlanta Woman Challenges Weightlifting Rule Requiring Tight Skimpy Uniforms
[11 Alive]
European basketball body rules out compromise on Israeli point guard's religious observance
[Newser]
Olympics 2012 FIFA Bans Headscarves for Iran's Women Soccer [Washington Post]
Badminton Delays Skirt Only Rule [The Guardian]
Toledo's Naama Shafir Balances Beliefs, Basketbal [ESPN]