Veiled athletes challenge stereotypes in Beijing

BEIJING (Reuters) - The women in Roqaya Al Ghasara’s home town in Bahrain are so proud of their pioneering Olympic sprinter that some of them got together to design and sew a set of tailor-made aerodynamic veils for her to run in.

Egyptian fencer Shaimaa El Gammal, a third-timer at the Olympics, will don Islamic headgear in Beijing for the first time. She says it is a sign she is come of age and she feels more empowered than ever.

This year’s Games will see a sizable sprinkling of veiled athletes who are determined to avoid offending devout Muslims back home while showing skimpily dressed rivals there is nothing constricting about wearing “hijab”.

Two of them, Bahrain’s Al Ghasara and veiled Iranian rower Homa Hosseini, won the honor of being flag bearers for their countries at the opening ceremony’s parade of athletes.

“The hijab has never been a problem for me. In Bahrain you grow up with it,” said Al Ghasara, wearing a white baseball cap over a black veil that covers her hair and neck. Her baggy running gear exposes only her face and hands.

“There are more women in sport all the time from countries like Qatar and Kuwait. You can choose to wear the hijab or not. For me it’s liberating,” added Al Ghasara, whose close-fitting running veils come in red or white, the Bahraini colors.

Since they first started appearing a few decades ago, veils at the Olympics have always drawn stares.

This year an unprecedented half a dozen Egyptian athletes, three Iranians, an Afghan and a Yemeni will compete with covered heads like Al Ghasara. They say they want to inspire other women in their countries to break away from Muslim stereotypes.


Bahrain's Olympic team follow their national flag-bearer Roqaya Al Ghasara during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium, August 8, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake

“People see us wearing the scarf and think we ride camels. But Muslim women can do anything they want,” said El Gammal, a bubbly 28-year-old whose sister will compete in the same event, also wearing Islamic headgear.

“When I fence I’m proud that I’m a Muslim. It’s very symbolic for women in my country,” El Gammal told Reuters.

Beijing’s athletes’ village has laid on halal food for the hundreds of Muslims staying there, but it only has a mosque for men, despite scores of Muslim women, mostly bare-headed, from countries such as Tunisia, Iran and Pakistan.

While Saudi Arabia and Brunei do not allow women to formally practice sport, the Gulf nations of United Arab Emirates and Oman have sent women athletes to the 2008 Olympics for the first time.

Iranian women still battle restrictions but three, in headscarves, will compete in rowing, taekwondo and archery. Afghanistan, where the burka used to be compulsory under Taliban rule, has veiled sprinter Robina Muqimyar running the 100 meters.

Al Ghasara, 25, was the first Bahrain-born athlete to strike gold on the international circuit and won the first female medal at the West Asian Games when it opened up to women in 2005.

With a volley of wins, she broke down barriers to women in sport in Bahrain, where many still wear head-to-toe hijab.

At the Olympics, she hopes to help quash the perception among many in the West that the veil is akin to repression.

“We have women who are ambassadors, doctors, pilots,” said the runner, who prays daily in her athletes’ village bedroom but has a weakness for red nail varnish and shopping.

“I haven’t been criticized at home, and at the Olympics race or religion is irrelevant, we’re all just here to do sport.”

Editing by Alex Richardson