Earlier this month FIFA overturned its ban on the wearing of hijab in competitive football just in time for the London Olympics but too late for the Iranian women's football team who were turned away from their qualifying match in Bahrain last year for wearing headscarves.
The case highlights the fact that many Muslim women both in Britain and around the world are excluded or discouraged from taking up sports owing to their desire to maintain stricter standards of modesty than sports clothes allow. And Muslims are not alone. A number of women from Hindu, Sikh, and orthodox Jewish backgrounds as well as people with weight issues are put off swimming by the skimpiness of most existing styles of swimwear. Many end up cobbling together cumbersome and improvised outfits from leggings and shirts or shalwar kamizes often in inappropriate materials for swimming; others avoid the sport altogether rather than face exposure.
How to satisfy notions of decency, efficiency and design has long been an issue of concern in sportswear. In 1902, the Amateur Swimming Association set regulations for men and women, specifying that swimming costumes for both sexes should extend within three inches of the knee. In 1905, the swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested for indecency on a beach in Boston for wearing a one piece swimming costume. The problem of trying to balance ideas of practicality and modesty resurfaced in debates on women's swimwear for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Should women wear skirts, modesty aprons or pantaloons? Was it worse to risk women drowning in unsuitable clothing or for the reputation of the Olympic Games to be damaged by their inclusion in immodest dress?
Clearly what we consider decent, practical and attractive changes over time and vary across cultures. We need to recognise that many women in Britain today choose to wear covered dress for cultural or religious reasons and that our mono-cultural attitude to sportswear may be preventing them from participating in sports and leading more active and healthy life styles.
Fortunately some women designers have recognised the need for more inclusive designs. The Dutch designer, Cindy Van den Bremen, was studying design in the 1990's at a time when Dutch newspapers were full of controversies about Muslim school girls wearing hijabs for sport. Cindy became convinced it must be possible to design a head covering that covered the head and neck but also fulfilled health and safety requirements and blended with contemporary sports fashions. Working in close collaboration with young Muslim women, she came up with the 'Capster' - a hijab made from contemporary sports materials which could either be slipped over the head or fastened with a Velcro pad.
Her designs have been approved by a Dutch imam and are made using light weight flexible fabrics which offer sweat absorbency and breathability. They can be worn by anyone who wants to cover, whether for religious reasons or suffering from alopecia.
Another example of socially inclusive design is the so called 'burqini' - a two piece hooded tunic and trouser combination which got a brief moment of fame when Nigela Lawson wore one last year on a beach in Australia . The original Ahiida trade mark burqini was designed by Aheda Zanetti, a Lebanese born Australian Muslim woman who recognised that many Muslim women were simply avoiding swimming owing to their concerns about modesty and bodily exposure. On her website she has received testimonials of approval not only from Muslims but also Christians, orthodox Jews and people concerned about skin cancer.
In East London, the boutique, Modestly Active, offers a range of modest swimsuits, including some without hoods for women who do not wear hijab but still wish to cover their skin. What is remarkable about these outfits is how light and comfortable they are and how they blend with sports fashions more generally in colour and material. Made from water resistance flexible fabric, they move with the body under water without dragging the wearer down. While Ahiida and Modestly Active are both Muslim initiatives, online companies such as Aqua Modesta and SeaSecret have been set up by orthodox Jewish women. All of these companies are expanding the choice for women who wish to avoid exposure either to men or the sun. Interestingly some of the big corporate giants are beginning to recognise this potential market. Speedo, for example, sells a long sleeved full length swimsuit and Nike sells swimsuits which offer some leg coverage.
London is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, so what better opportunity than the 2012 Olympics to show that British sport really can be inclusive?
Emma Tarlo is a Reader in Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of the book, Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith (Berg)
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