Sports uniforms are created to help athletes swim, run, jump, move, and fly faster, more gracefully, and prevent injury. In some cases, these uniforms can make a real, tangible difference in performance. Full-body swimsuits were developed to make swimmers more buoyant and significantly reduce drag. They also made swimmers faster and had a marked impact on swimming. In 2009, more than 20 world records were broken. Michael Phelps complained that the suits were distorting swimmers' true skill and ability. He threatened to boycott the 2010 Olympics if swimmers were allowed to compete in these suits. They've since been banned. But for some athletes, performance and safety are not the only things they keep in mind when getting dressed for a sport; they're also factoring in their faith. Muslim, Jewish, and Pentecostal women who adhere to their faiths’ requirements of modest dress wear clothing with sleeves, high necklines, and longer hems. Regardless of the setting or activity, these requirements must be met when they’re in public spaces. For casual sports and exercise, these women can typically piece together a modest look and participate in the activity of their choice. But at the competitive level, women of faith often have to get special permission to wear a modified uniform. Sometimes, it isn’t granted.
During the 2012 Olympics in London, the Iranian women’s soccer team was disqualified by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, because it showed up for a qualifying match wearing headscarves. FIFA claimed that the scarf was a safety concern and broke the association’s dress code. The FIFA ban on headscarves has since been lifted, but it should have never been imposed in the first place.
In other cases, Muslim women have gotten accommodations that allowed them compete in modified modest uniforms after long-fought requests. American weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah made a 44-page presentation and waited a year for the International Weightlifting Federation to allow her to compete in pants, long sleeves, and a headscarf (judges said that long sleeves prevented them from seeing whether or not her arms and legs were locked). In 2012, several Muslim nations sent their first female athletes to the Olympics in modest uniforms. Shinoona Salah Al-Habsi, of Oman, and Sulaiman Fatima Dahman, from Yemen, ran in the 100 meter race. Wojdan Shaherkani, of Saudi Arabia, competed in Judo. For Shaherkani, Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee had to contend with Judo’s governing body against the claim that the headscarf would be a safety risk. Safety is oft cited as the concern against modest uniforms. However, it's a weak reason, since form-fitting headscarves and long-sleeved tops and pants can be like a second skin.
At the upcoming 2016 Olympics, Ibtihaj Muhammad will be the first U.S. athlete to compete wearing a headscarf. Muhammad is a fencer who got her start when her mother saw that the uniform for fencing was already modest. Fencers wear full-length pants, long sleeves, gloves, and a face mask. In full uniform, you can’t tell that Muhammad has her headscarf on under her mask.
Uniforms should not be a barrier in sports and several brands have emerged to provide comfort, performance, and modest apparel to women of faith. Last year, Snoga Athletics, cofounded by Candice Safdieh, focused on comfortable and functional leggings with skirts attached for Orthodox Jewish and Pentecostal women who always wear skirts. This past June, two Kickstarter campaigns exceeded their goals in raising money for loose, longer-length tops and performance headscarves for Muslim women — Sukoon Active and Veil Garments.
And when you think about it (like I have — a lot!), faith and sports have a lot in common. Both require dedication, discipline, and self-betterment. The pursuit of each is to find and showcase a version of humanity’s best self. Both are worth celebrating.