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Middle Eastern athletes bring excellence, complex political realities to Rio Olympics

The Olympics are never purely competitions of physical prowess; athletes can bring both glory and scrutiny to their nations and cultures, highlighting thorny issues through the lens of individual competitors.

This year, Middle Eastern and North African countries became embroiled in several political controversies over issues such as Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the “buying” of medals, and the wearing of the hijab during competition.

The most publicized controversy at the conclusion of a judo match between Egyptian Judoka Islam el-Shehaby and his Israeli opponent, Ori Sasson, when Shehaby refused to shake Sasson’s hand. The move reflects ongoing Israeli-Arabic and Israeli-Egyptian tensions that contain both ethnic and political dimensions. Many Israeli publications decried the gesture as racist.


Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images


Despite the end of hostilities between Egypt and Israeli beginning with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 and the cooperation of the two countries’ governments on economic and military issues, tensions between Israelis and Egyptians still run high.

Elsewhere, the wearing of the hijab by some athletes sparked both controversy and celebration of new milestones for Muslim women.

Notably, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first U.S. woman to compete while wearing a headscarf.


Carmelo Embesi/Associated Press

“When I heard that there had never been a Muslim woman on the U.S. team to wear the hijab, that is when I made this conscious decision to go for 2016,” Muhammad told CNNMoney. “I knew that I had it in me to qualify for the Olympic team, and I wanted to hopefully be that change, that other minorities could see that with hard work and perseverance, anything is possible.”

The wearing of the hijab, while typically only practiced by Muslim women, is not viewed as a religious symbol and is therefore permissible under IOC guidelines. Some disagree with this verdict, however, and decry that countries such as Saudi Arabia force women to wear headscarves to compete.

International conflict over the hijab is not new; the headscarf has become the locus of a debates about religion, culture, women’s rights and modernity, as well as representing a “clash of civilizations” (a theory of post-Cold War civilizational conflict created by Samuel P. Huntington in 1992 which has been widely debunked in academia).

Increasingly liberal attitudes towards the hijab in the West generated a positive response on social media for Saudi sprinter Karman Abuljadyel, the first Saudi woman to run the 100-meter sprint. Sprinter Sarah Atter became the first Saudi female olympian in 2012. Both women wore headscarves during competition.

Abuljadyel’s passionate and impressive performance were not sufficient to advance her to the next round. But after seeing a Saudi woman compete at the highest levels of athletics, many pundits noted the irony that she would not be able to drive upon returning to Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where driving is illegal for women.

During a volleyball match, an Iranian woman named Darya Safai held a sign saying “Let Iranian women enter their stadiums.” The statement references the general ban on women competing in sport since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which represented a decisive step backward for women’s rights in Iran.

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The IOC does not allow political statements at games. After refusing to leave, Safai was allowed by security members to continue holding her sign for the remainder of the game, despite the ban.

Safai smiled and appeared exuberant during the game while holding her sign, although she burst into tears when asked to leave by security members, telling them “I am so sorry. What I am fighting for is for the right for Iranian women to be at matches. It is my right to be here. It is the basic right of Iranian women.”

She said she cried because “it hurts to explain again and again that this peaceful action is not a political message, but a positive message of peace and human rights”.

“I want to cheer my national team,” she has said. “It is my right and that of all Iranian women whose voice is muted.”

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