olympics

Why The Proposed Olympic Judo Hijab Ban Doesn’t Add Up

The International Judo Federation has decided it will allow a Saudi athlete — one of the first women from the nation to ever go to the Games — to compete with a head covering. Why did they try to stop her in the first place?

Wojdan Shaherkhani.

As of yesterday, the sport’s governing body was threatening to bar Saudi Arabia’s Wodjan Shaherkhani from competition unless she agreed to compete without her hijab. But her religion requires that she wear it, and her father said she’d withdraw if she couldn’t. It looked like a potential PR nightmare for the Olympics, which had encouraged Saudi women to compete but were now making it impossible for them to do so.

Now the International Judo Federation has relented — they’ve found a form of headscarf they say is acceptable, and Shahrkhani will be allowed to wear it. Which raises the question, why did they try to ban her from wearing a headscarf at all?

The governing body had cited safety concerns, implying that the headscarf could pose a strangulation risk in combat. But judo fighters told the Wall Street Journal that was bogus: at worst, the scarf might fall off. The Judo Federation’s initial reluctance seems like a symptom of a larger issue: headscarves tend to make non-Muslims uncomfortable.

When France banned the full-face veil in 2011, it wasn’t for safety reasons — it was because the government decided the veil was a threat to women’s equality. Many women protested the ban, and some actually started wearing the veil explicitly in defiance of it. And while German anti-headscarf laws were framed as bans on “religious dress” in general, some contained exceptions for Christian iconography — one researcher told Human Rights Watch, “the claim that these restrictions don’t discriminate doesn’t stand up. In practice, the only people affected by them are Muslim women who wear the headscarf.” And yet, most headscarf bans have been framed as a way to liberate women.

Other sports organizations have recognized that there’s no practical reason to ban headscarves. Earlier this year, FIFA overturned its ban, allowing women to wear hijabs in its soccer games. Rugby and taekwondo already allowed the head coverings. Now that judo has followed suit, it will be even more difficult for any sporting body to claim that a headscarf ban is really about safety.

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