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Olympics and the Hijab

Homa HosseiniIs there really a valid issue in the Shari’ah about a woman being a flag bearer? We know that in war, the flag bearer is usually a male, and that in various ceremonies developed for Muharram observances, some cultures reenact the flag bearing of the battle of Karbala. This is always a male, in accordance with the history.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Homa HosseiniOn August 8, the Italian news agency Adn Kronos International (AKI) reported that the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, Sayyid Ahmad Elmalhoda, strongly criticized that a female had carried the Iranian flag during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. The flag was carried by Olympic rower Homa Hosseini. According to the article, Sayyid Elmalhoda said, “To make a woman march with the flag of the Islamic Republic in Beijing is pure heresy and shows total disobedience of the laws mandated by our spiritual guides. To make this woman march means to openly declare war to our religious values. Whoever is responsible for this unforgivable act, he should know that this gesture constitutes an obstacle for the appearance of Mahdi.”

To our knowledge, no one has contacted Sayyid Elmalhoda for verification or clarification of his statement, but the report has caused discussion and controversy in some Shia online forums. Some people thought the objection might be related to Homa Hosseini herself, because a Google image search produces several pictures without Hijab. But the translation of the alleged statement suggests the issue that Sayyid Elmalhoda objected to is a woman carrying the flag of the country.

In response to the controversy, many people asked scholars for their opinion of the situation. All the replies reported in the forums indicated that the scholars did not find objection to the participation of any of the Iranian women in the Opening Ceremonies, saying that their Hijab was appropriate and that a woman carrying the flag in this context was permissible. It was suggested that their participation had been approved in advance by authorities in Iran.

Many people still want to know if the report is indeed factual, and if so, what was the basis for the Mashhad prayer leader’s strong statement. Is there really a valid issue in the Shari’ah about a woman being a flag bearer? We know that in war, the flag bearer is usually a male, and that in various ceremonies developed for Muharram observances, some cultures reenact the flag bearing of the battle of Karbala. This is always a male, in accordance with the history.

If a woman being a flag-bearer in a ceremony for the Olympic Games is to be considered an impediment to the return of the Imam of Our Age (may Allah hasten his reappearance), then what of the Olympics Games themselves? Many people enjoy the games as a peaceful venture of elite competition and goodwill. Reality shows there is a darker side to the Games – a history of violent politics, doping, child abuse, removing people from their homes to build arenas, and much more – all for the idolatry of the medals and what they symbolize in the global arena.

Michael Phelps and other great Olympic athletes are being hailed as heroes and good role models. But one thing is missing from the overall spirit of the Olympics that prevents it from fully achieving its generally noble or harmless ideals. While many athletes make their own personal prayers as they prepare to compete, by and large the intention of the competition from the ancient beginning of the Games to the present is missing “Bismillah” (In the Name of Allah). The extreme absorption into the sport that is necessary to produce an elite athlete, absent a purified intention, is possibly a form of Shirk (polytheism).

If we continue to analyze the Olympic Games in light of the flag-bearing controversy, another issue closely behind it is the role of the Muslim woman in sport. The Islamic scholars for the most part seem to approve of female participation in sports, provided proper Hijab is observed. Iran has made some great strides for female participation in sport. Earlier this year, a new park was dedicated in Iran entirely for women, and it is not the first of its kind. An outdoor venue for women to run, swim, play volleyball, relax, and walk freely without Hijab is a wonderful thing. And there are also indoor sport facilities in Iran for Muslim women that rival the men’s. But in general, Muslim women all over the world are forced to choose between observing proper Hijab and not exercising and enjoying sport, or observing proper Hijab while struggling to find ways to be physically active that are not too uncomfortable or impractical, or simply taking off the Hijab to achieve their athletic potentials and enjoy good physical exercise.

Why do we see so few Hijabi athletes at the Olympics? It seems that most women who observe Hijab do not achieve elite levels in athletics. There are many reasons for this, not all of them bad. But if the complaints of many Muslim women hold any bearing, there is a disparity that the Muslim communities need to address.

About Masooma Beatty

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  • Hassan A.

    Our Umma has bigger things to worry about than olympic flag bearers. Although olympics are highly televised and watched by billions, that doesn’t make them the most important matter in the world. People need to wake up and realize that sports are good, but sport is only a means to the goal…..

  • Mohammed A. Cherri

    In an age of excessive affluence and immobility, remaining physically fit is becoming increasingly important. In our Islamic communities worldwide it is important for us to look beyond taking pride in our rising numbers and Hallal food, and instead look to fulfill all the needs of our Islamic societies. Not only has it been difficult to provide truly Islamic environments for training and exercise for women in the West, but it is also very difficult for men to participate in gyms in the west given the un-Islamic environments that they must immerse themselves in. Members of our communities should take these matters seriously, and think of creating venues that would ease and improve the lives of their fellow Muslims rather than creating facilities with the prime goal of generating great revenue.

  • Nadir

    Honestly, has anyone ever heard of Sayyid Elmalhoda until he said this? With all due respect, this man is some random, obscure individual who said something controversial, and the Western media used the statement to discredit the Islamic Republic. Give me a statement from Sayyid Khamenei, or Shaykh Mesbah Yazdi, or from any other scholar whose name we all know. You want to know the truth about Iran’s women? Go look at the number of national teams they have, and then tell me whether Iran is “backward” or has a “poor human rights record”.

  • Abdullah

    Sayyid Ahmad Alam Al-Huda leads the Friday Prayers at Imam Ridha’s shrine in the holy city of Mashhad. He is a well known and influential scholar in Iran and its political circles. This article clearly stated, “To our knowledge, no one has contacted Sayyid Elmalhoda for verification or clarification of his statement, but the report has caused discussion and controversy in some Shia online forums.”

    I for one, don’t buy any part of it for several reasons: 1. It has not been confirmed by a reliable source that he made such a statement. Forums don’t count.
    2. What is the exact statement he made? Was it about women in general or that particular woman who may not symbolize the principles of the revolution?
    3. The report did not even translate his name properly, which leads me to question, were they able to translate his words properly? His name is Alam al-huda. Since the words alam and elm or ilm are spelled similarly in Arabic and Farsi…the translator has mistaken alam which is ain, laam and meem, for elm which is also ain, laam and meem.
    4. Is this another case of twisting words around to meet a certain political goal? We’ve seen it before in the case of Iran’s president and other figures?

    So let us not judge before we have all of the facts. And let us not fall victim to propoganda.

    And with all due respect…a person who leads the friday prayer in the world’s largest foundation and is himself a mujtahid is not random and obscure just because he is not famous. Many important individuals exist who shy away from fame but their knowledge and piety are at par or even higher than those famous individuals we know.

  • Nadir

    Perhaps I worded my statment rudely, I apologise. When I described him as a random, obscure individual, I wasn’t doubting that he was a pious scholar. What I meant was that the Sayyid is not a well known individual outside the Islamic Republic, and would probably have remained unheard of outside Iran were it not for the comments he made. Random and obscure were the wrong words and I apologise if anyone took offense.

  • al-ajal

    what a beautiful way to represent Islam and the status of women with this act! May Allah (SWT) bless the Islamic Republic! Her clothes were modest and that was a great move they did to prove wrong the “as seen on TV”…It was better than the lady from Bahrain, wearing a complete skin suit that revealed her every shape!