Published today at The Telegraph
It may seem a small step, but having a major British department store stock sporty hijabs could reverse worrying health trends for Muslim women in this country. Shelina Janmohamed reports
Asisat Oshoala is one of a growing number of Muslim women on the global sports stage. She has been tipped as one of the top 10 players to watch during the current Women’s World Cup. And at 20 years old she’s a remarkable figure to also have been named as the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year. She plays for Liverpool and was the highest female goal scorer under 20 last year.
In 2012 Sarah el Attar was the first Saudi woman ever to take part in the Olympics. Indian Muslim tennis player Sania Mirza is currently world number one in women’s doubles. Ibtihaj Muhammed became the first Muslim woman to compete for the USA at an international level in her chosen sport of fencing.
These are fantastic female Muslim role models, but closer to home, the story of Muslim women and sport is less positive. According to Sport England, only 18 per cent of Muslim women take part in sports, compared to around 30 per cent of the female population. Part of this is related to ethnicity – only 21 per cent of Asian women take part in sports, and in the UK at least two thirds of Muslims are of Asian origin. But it’s also a gender issue, as Muslim and Asian male participation in sport does not fall below the average for their sex.
Just five years ago, the figures for female Muslim participation in sports were as low as 12 per cent which suggests that things are improving, but not nearly fast enough. A number of barriers remain – such as access to facilities which Muslim women feel are sensitive to their needs, misplaced cultural taboos around preserving ‘modesty’ and of course, suitable sportswear.
A sports hijab range has just launched at House of Fraser, finally bringing to the high street the kind of clothing Muslim women who cover choose to exercise in. Soft, flexible and tidy, it keeps hair under wraps whilst maximising movement. Until now, items like the Burqini, and sports friendly clothing have been restricted to online outlets or local independent stores, often created by Muslim women themselves who have found the high street and mainstream brands lacking when it comes to modest sportswear. Other women, outside of the Muslim community, are of course looking for modest sportswear too.
It’s a small but important step in actively engaging Muslim women in sports. A lack of involvement in sports and health related activities among younger Muslim women has long term implications for health and equalities. Analysis of the 2011 census figures by the Muslim Council of Britain show that Muslim women over the age of 65 feature disproportionately high into the category of bad or very bad health (38.2 per cent versus 16.1 per cent of the overall female population), and disproportionately low in the very good or good health categories (22.3 per cent versus 47.3 per cent). There’s a similar pattern when reporting disability over 65 where Muslim women report that their day to day activities are limited far more than the overall population. (47.6 per cent versus 29.4 per cent).
This matters because the reduction of health inequality is a one of fairness and social justice. But it also matters because ensuring long term good health is socially and economically the right thing for any community, given a straitened NHS and an aging population.
The three biggest health challenges for Muslim populations are diabetes, dementia and depression, all of which can be substantially improved through healthy lifestyles and sports.
The right clothing is very important, but so is creating the right cultural conditions within a community, as well as ensuring access to the correct facilities. For instance, local swimming pools are increasingly offering female-only sessions open to all women.
Zainab Ismail working out in the ‘Islamic fitness DVD’. Photo: NADINE ABU JUBARA
There’s a growing cottage industry of Muslim personal trainers, gyms, sports classes and even – bizarrely – fitness videos. Many of these Muslim women talk about how their faith pushes them to take care of their bodies. But they want to fulfil their sports aspiration while maintaining a level of modesty that is important to them.
This is not about Muslim women segregating themselves off from the mainstream – quite the opposite. They want to be involved in sports just like their peers.
Sports England launched its phenomenally successful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign because a study it commissioned discovered that significantly fewer women than men play sport regularly – two million fewer female 14 – 40 year olds in total. When the women were asked why didn’t exercise, a reason that kept cropping up was their fear of being judged on their appearance, while they sweated buckets. Of course, being judged on a appearance is a challenge Muslim, women know too well.
If we want to encourage young women – including young Muslim women – to take up sports, the easy availability of decent sportswear is a major first step. However, once we get past the outfit anxiety, we must concentrate on the important bit: the taking part.