Muslim sportswomen are too often read and represented as the oppressed “other” needing saving from their backward culture/society. However, my research on the digital lives of Muslim sportswomen reveals the multiple and nuanced ways they are taking matters of representation into their own hands, and in so doing, are challenging dominant portrayals of Muslim women in the mass media. Mainstream media coverage of Muslim women tends to focus on the hijabi athlete, while other Muslim sportswomen are often overlooked. The overrepresentation of the “oppressed” hijabi athlete obscures the multiple ways that Muslim women are participating in sport, as well as the cultural differences and diversity within this group. For example, the image below of a beach volleyball match between teams from Egypt and Germany, dubbed by some as the “clash of civilizations,” was circulated widely on social media. Many of the conversations and images centred around the hijabi athlete and rarely mentioned her Egyptian teammate who did not wear the hijab.
Such depictions, through text (describing Muslim women as passive and oppressed) and/or images (focusing on the hijab/niqab), create narratives that adhere to the Orientalist view, which distorts non-Western cultures in comparison to European cultures, implying the “other” culture is backward, uncivilized, and exotic. This type of media discourse may continue to reinforce problematic and limited representations and understandings of the lives of Muslim women in the world today.
Over the past decade, researchers have increasingly explored the important role of social media in contemporary sport. Some feminist scholars have examined how sportswomen are using social media for self-branding and marketing, online self-representation, or digital activism. However, Muslim sportswomen are not necessarily using social media in the same ways. To better understand how Muslim sportswomen are using social media in their everyday lives, my PhD research draws upon the work of critical feminist digital media and sports scholars, applying an intersectional approach to consider the ways in which different aspects of participants’ identities (e.g., race, gender, religion) combine to influence their experiences. Specifically, I have conducted interviews with 20 Muslim sportswomen from around the world in an array of different sports (e.g., mountaineering, fencing, basketball, CrossFit, mixed martial arts) and different sporting backgrounds (elite, competitive, and recreational). Prior to interviewing the sportswomen, I conducted an eight-month digital ethnography. This involved overt observations (with permission from participants) of the online lives of 26 Muslim sportswomen’s social media accounts across four different platforms (SnapChat, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). For the Muslim sportswomen in my research, rather than being stereotyped into mainstream media’s perspective of the oppressed “other,” they are subtly and at times overtly bringing in the complex nature of their offline lives into digital spaces and offering alternative representations of sportswomen.
As an example, a participant in my research, Dina (name changed for anonymity) is a 30-year-old mountaineer from the Middle East and North Africa. Dina, who does not wear the hijab in her day-to-day life, stated: “I like to give the mysterious element on Instagram that maybe I am covered or maybe I am not.” The control of her social media posts is not just for the “mysterious” element, but to get local sponsors (keeping in mind cultural norms of her society) and importantly influence other girls/women to take up mountaineering. In other words, she is strategic and conscious with her posts so she can share a different narrative about herself, her sport, and her society.
Muslim sportswomen are more diverse and their lives are more complex than typically depicted in mainstream media. For the Muslim women in my study, their identities do not rest solely on religion, gender, race, or nationality, but rather on individual interpretations and experiences at the intersection of such identities in relation to sport. For example, some participants didn’t want to be known as the first woman to compete in a particular sport from a Muslim country; rather, they wished to be recognized for their skills as athletes. In sum, social media allows the Muslim sportswomen in my research opportunities to reimagine and promote counternarratives to dominant media representations, as well as adding further complexity to understandings of digital embodiment.
Nida Ahmad (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD Student in the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance at the University of Waikato, in New Zealand. She also is on the executive board of the Muslim Women in Sport Network, which launched in 2018. Her research focuses on Muslim sportswomen’s uses of social media. She has published in the International Journal of the Sociology of Sport, Routledge Handbook of Youth Sport, Routledge Handbook of Sport for Development and Peace, and International Journal of Communication. You can follow her on Twitter: @NAicha11