The Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad and branded as Rio 2016, came to a close over the weekend. And among other things, it drew attention to what Muslim women athletes are capable of.

Like Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee, can win her first heat for women’s 100m butterfly and be hailed for it to no end because of who she is – a swimmer who saved 20 people from drowning into the ocean by dragging a broken-down dingy to shore. Like Kariman Abuljadayel, a Saudi sprinter, can be the first woman ever to compete in the event making enough history without even making it out of the first heat. Like Doaa Elghobashy, an Egyptian volleyball player, can make a candid photograph one of the most talked of frames ever captured at any Olympics simply by being beautifully diverse.

There were 14 Muslim women athletes who won a medal at Rio 2016, some of them the only winners for their countries, and the number of those who competed but didn’t win anything is far greater than this.

The media wasn’t slow to recognize these accomplishments nor did it shy away from putting these women in the spotlight but when it came to choosing poster babies for Muslim women in sports, most didn’t qualify. The rule was pretty obvious: no hijab, no highlight.

You don’t get points for representing the Islamic community because you just gotta wear your faith on your sleeve for that. You gotta wear what the West perceives as their favorite ‘symbol of oppression’ for women in an unoppressed environment to be newsworthy so Muslims & Friends can point to you and smile smugly at the haters and say, ‘See? Not oppressed!’

Why?

If it’s about hailing Muslim athletes then why not highlight Dalilah Muhammad’s faith the way we did for Ibtihaj Muhammad. They even share the same last name!And when it comes to athletics and sports, Dalilah is better at it because hello – first Gold for America in women’s 400m hurdles in Olympics history!And Aliya Mustafina of Russia – she’s a veteran gymnast! She has 38 medals out of which seven are from Olympic Games while the rest she won in other World Championships. Not enough to hail this Muslim athlete as poster child for our sporty Ummah? 

A Muslim woman athlete who has decided to cover herself is great but that does nothing to guarantee how great she’ll be at the sport she’s competing in. it is also no solid indication of her piety and taqwa nor should it matter. Same goes for the one who is sprinting in shorts or swimming in not a burkini. A Muslim woman athlete is not on the field to be judged on how good a Muslim she is. She is there to excel in the sport of her choice. She isn’t competing for Jannah just then. She’s competing for a medal – Gold, Silver or Bronze – to make her country and people proud on a very ‘worldly’ and ‘materialistic’ level.  

Given the recent hostile environment surrounding hijab-clad women the world over, the need to make the hijab normal and to refute its ‘otherness’ is understandable, and yes it does represent its faith. I will agree that hailing Ibtihaj or the Egyptian volleyball player or the Saudi sprinter for their attire lends confidence to the many young hijabi Muslim girls who might share a passion for sports or something bolder than a 9-to-5 career. Yes, it would tell those girls that their hijab doesn’t restrain or restrict them, it empowers them.

Yes, all good. Clearly, the problem doesn’t lie in hailing the hijab.It lies in hailing it as the only representation of a Muslim woman. The problem lies in exclusively looking for a token Muslim woman to represent the very diverse community of Muslim women.

Not all Muslim women wear a hijab. Not all wear shorts either. Most of us lie somewhere in between these two extremes so the best way to represent ‘us’ is to celebrate all Muslim women luminaries so everyone can see that diversity as acceptable, as normal, and as part of the Muslim community.

If you’re going to profile an athlete, a dancer, a musician, a singer, a writer, any professional as belonging to the Muslim community, don’t do that based on how they dress but rather what they identify as their belief system. Unless you’re rallying for a religious scholar, religious devoutness shouldn’t come into so much play that it overshadows the actual skill being celebrated. Case in point – athletics: Ibtihaj over Dalilah, Bronze over Gold because one checks the preferred community poster face.

In fact, if you really want to go by religion, then you might be surprised to know it doesn’t allow a woman to perform publically, in mixed gatherings,where everyone can follow and rate her every move while she runs, jumps, dunks, flies, wrestles, fences, swims, volleys or whatever. It doesn’t matter if her hair is covered and the skin isn’t showing thanks to her figure-hugging outfit. She is still a woman, her curves still show, it still doesn’t fulfill the conditions of ‘satar’ and ‘hijab’, and no Muslim scholar will tell you otherwise. Yet you willfully ignore all that and pick this particular cherry of being sporty while hijabi because it suits you..?

It’s still cherry picking.

So, let’s not act as if non-hijabi Muslim women aren’t Muslim enough to be the face of the Muslim community especially when they’re good at what they do.

Between Ibtihaj, Dalilah, Aliya and Ines – let’s choose them all as what a Muslim woman can look like, be like, and win like.