Guest Blog: Women in the 2012 Summer Olympics: Breaking Barriers and Breaking a Sweat, Without Breaking Stride

This weeks guest blog is from a dear friend and old roommate of mine, Charity.  She is an awesome intellectual, baller, emcee and many other things.  Needless to say, this woman is awesome.  She posted this blog on her personal blog Charity is…the catalyst .  I hope you enjoy her “intellectual musings” that connect race, gender, class and athletics. 
Peace B. Still,
Halfway across the world, History is being made.  This year’s Summer Olympic games in London is the first where each competing country has had a woman competitor. This morning I watched women running in the 100m qualifying not so much concerned with breaking the tape at the finish line as much as with breaking gender barriers in their own countries.  The smile on the face of Afghani runner, Tahmina Kohistani, as she crossed the finish line was monumental; it was reminiscent of a child running towards the playground when the bell for recess had sounded.  Even though she finished last by a considerable margin, she is a pioneer in a country where, not too long ago, women were not allowed to leave their homes unaccompanied and dressed in a burka.  Kohistani, who competed in full body athletic spandex with shorts and a long shirt and a hijab with her countries stated after the race, “I have a big message for the women of Afghanistan. Come and join me because I’m alone and I need your support!”  
In Brasil in 2016, more Afghani women will compete for their country for the next Olympics.  I say Inshallah (which loosely translates to Lord Willing or If it is God’s will) because Kohistani’s courage is a triumph for Muslim women who live in countries where it is still viewed as haram (forbidden) for women to participate in athletics.  I think it is amazing that during the month of Ramadan, 6 women became the first to compete for their countries in the Summer Olympic games.  In addition to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, qatar, Brunei, Oman and Yemen had women compete; all wearing hijabs and fully covered.  I remember asking my father when I was 9 and we both converted to Islam whether I could still play basketball and whether or not I had to wear a hijab.  My father met with our Imam and they told me that covering the body and wearing the hijab were a way to preserve modesty and prevent objectification.  I promised that I would not wear “tight” clothes or make up if I would still be allowed to play basketball in my uniform (tanktop jersey and shorts), and was told that Allah would accept this because my behavior and intentions were pure.  I realize that my experience is vastly different from the Muslim women competing in the Olympics this year because they come from countries where Islam is deeply connected to century old cultural practices where oppression of women has been normalized.  I am so proud to see these women proving to the world that being a Muslim woman does not equate to being oppressed.  
Here in the United States we look at Eastern Islamic society as so prehistoric by the way they “oppress” women by not allowing them to participate in sports or the freedom to pursue interests outside of the home.  In terms of women’s sports, Title IX, the monumental legislation in the United States that mandated accommodations be provided to allow women to participate in athletics at a level of parity with men was passed in 1972.  This happened only forty years ago and women athletes in the United States are still scrutinized and considered to be less feminine because of their muscular bodies and competitive drive.  In contrast, Muslim women cover their bodies to avoid objectification, we here in the United States see a problem with a woman’s unwillingness to accept her role as a sexual object.  The way women’s clothes are cut are made to enhance her physical features and if she decides to not to wear them, we question her femininity.  We are so quick to point out the burka as a symbol of oppression when women in the United States are killing themselves to be thin, have fuller lips, larger breasts and “fatter” asses.
Imagine trying to focus on your training to perform to the best of your abilities, performing at a high level and winning a gold medal, and instead of being celebrated for your accomplishments, you are criticized because you don’t fit a certain standard of beauty; a standard that was not created to include you.  That is the hand that 16 year old Gold Medal winning gymnast Gabby Douglas has been dealt.  Gabby is the First Black American to win an all around gymnastics medal in the Olympics.  Originally from Virginia, she has spent the last couple of years living with a host family in Iowa to train.  From the opening ceremony where she was shown waving proudly at the London crowd she was criticized by Black women on social networks because of her hair.  Comments flooded twitter timelines about her need to find a good weave and tighten up her ponytail and received more attention than the praise she was given for being only the second Black woman to make a United States gymnastic team, the first being Dominique Dawes. 
 Seeing these comments saddened me on a serious level because at the same time Muslim women from other countries were being liberated from the gender oppression they faced, Black women here in the United States are still chained psychologically by a need to uphold Eurocentric beauty standards.  I cannot count the number of “whoopins” I got from my mother and grandmother because I had “sweated out my hair” playing around as an energetic 6 year old.  I cannot count the number of times I was denied the opportunity to go swimming with my friends because I would “mess up my hair.”  As a young girl, my hair was more of a burden to me than anything that would symbolize beauty.  I just wanted to play.  I wasn’t trying to win a beauty pageant, I wasn’t trying to “look cute” for any boy at that age.  The last thing I cared about was my hair, but my Mom cared, and my grandmother cared.  They cared because they were trying to uphold an image of beauty that required Black women to straighten their hair to look like white women; and image of beauty that did not reward competitiveness but rather associated docility with beauty. They expressed that I represented them when I left the house and for my hair not to be “done” reflected poorly on them within the community.It didn’t matter to them that I felt most beautiful when I was on the basketball court, the shame they anticipated from people recognizing that m hair was “wild” would surely outweigh the praise from my All-State performances.  There were many games where I left the court receiving compliments on my playing that I was consumed with what my mom would say when she saw my hair.  For a long time, that lingering thought that I was somehow embarrassing her was a hindrance that made it difficult to fully concentrate on the game.  
When I was 16 I made the decision to wear my hair naturally.  At the time I had no idea what to DO with my hair, but I knew I did not want it to be a hindrance to my performance on the basketball court.  I have gone through braids, short hair cuts, twists, afros, “not-done” phases and when I was 23, I finally I settled on growing locs and have been growing them since then.  I’ve had many friends growing up that WANTED to play sports but dared not risk the punishment for “messing up their hair.”  At 16 Gabby Douglas has something more important to worry about than her hair, her pursuit of excellence in the sport she loves.  The only public comments that should be made by Blacks, especially black women, should show our unwavering support and pride in being represented by such a talented young lady.  If we want to make suggestions to help her “tackle” her hair issues, those should be done in private, and with love not with hostility and shaming critique. 
Yes, halfway around the world, History is being made.  Women are making strides; freeing themselves from the racial, religious and gender oppression they have experienced for simply being who they are.  In doing so they are forcing us to come to terms with the ways we self-impose the views of the oppressor and then project them onto other oppressed people.

~ by travelling womanists on August 9, 2012.

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