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Olympics and the Hijab

On August 8, the Italian news agency Adn Kronos International (AKI) reported that the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, Sayyid Ahmad Elmalhoda, strongly criticized that a female had carried the Iranian flag during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. The flag was carried by Olympic rower Homa Hosseini. According to the article, Sayyid Elmalhoda said, "To make a woman march with the flag of the Islamic Republic in Beijing is pure heresy and shows total disobedience of the laws mandated by our spiritual guides. To make this woman march means to openly declare war to our religious values. Whoever is responsible for this unforgivable act, he should know that this gesture constitutes an obstacle for the appearance of Mahdi."

To our knowledge, no one has contacted Sayyid Elmalhoda for verification or clarification of his statement, but the report has caused discussion and controversy in some Shia online forums. Some people thought the objection might be related to Homa Hosseini herself, because a Google image search produces several pictures without Hijab. But the translation of the alleged statement suggests the issue that Sayyid Elmalhoda objected to is a woman carrying the flag of the country.

In response to the controversy, many people asked scholars for their opinion of the situation. All the replies reported in the forums indicated that the scholars did not find objection to the participation of any of the Iranian women in the Opening Ceremonies, saying that their Hijab was appropriate and that a woman carrying the flag in this context was permissible. It was suggested that their participation had been approved in advance by authorities in Iran.

Many people still want to know if the report is indeed factual, and if so, what was the basis for the Mashhad prayer leader's strong statement. Is there really a valid issue in the Shari'ah about a woman being a flag bearer? We know that in war, the flag bearer is usually a male, and that in various ceremonies developed for Muharram observances, some cultures reenact the flag bearing of the battle of Karbala. This is always a male, in accordance with the history.

If a woman being a flag-bearer in a ceremony for the Olympic Games is to be considered an impediment to the return of the Imam of Our Age (may Allah hasten his reappearance), then what of the Olympics Games themselves? Many people enjoy the games as a peaceful venture of elite competition and goodwill. Reality shows there is a darker side to the Games – a history of violent politics, doping, child abuse, removing people from their homes to build arenas, and much more – all for the idolatry of the medals and what they symbolize in the global arena.

Michael Phelps and other great Olympic athletes are being hailed as heroes and good role models. But one thing is missing from the overall spirit of the Olympics that prevents it from fully achieving its generally noble or harmless ideals. While many athletes make their own personal prayers as they prepare to compete, by and large the intention of the competition from the ancient beginning of the Games to the present is missing "Bismillah" (In the Name of Allah). The extreme absorption into the sport that is necessary to produce an elite athlete, absent a purified intention, is possibly a form of Shirk (polytheism).

If we continue to analyze the Olympic Games in light of the flag-bearing controversy, another issue closely behind it is the role of the Muslim woman in sport. The Islamic scholars for the most part seem to approve of female participation in sports, provided proper Hijab is observed. Iran has made some great strides for female participation in sport. Earlier this year, a new park was dedicated in Iran entirely for women, and it is not the first of its kind. An outdoor venue for women to run, swim, play volleyball, relax, and walk freely without Hijab is a wonderful thing. And there are also indoor sport facilities in Iran for Muslim women that rival the men's. But in general, Muslim women all over the world are forced to choose between observing proper Hijab and not exercising and enjoying sport, or observing proper Hijab while struggling to find ways to be physically active that are not too uncomfortable or impractical, or simply taking off the Hijab to achieve their athletic potentials and enjoy good physical exercise.

Why do we see so few Hijabi athletes at the Olympics? It seems that most women who observe Hijab do not achieve elite levels in athletics. There are many reasons for this, not all of them bad. But if the complaints of many Muslim women hold any bearing, there is a disparity that the Muslim communities need to address.

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