Levelling the playing field for Muslim women

Dr Haifaa Jawad and Dr Tansin Benn on how research at Birmingham is helping to break down barriers to participation.

The University of Birmingham is situated in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK. The Muslim population is growing, as it is across Europe, and for some girls and women cultural, educational and sporting barriers exist which deny opportunities to participate in physical activity, physical education and / or sport.

Cultural traditions can deny rights to engagement in physical activity on the grounds of Islamic requirements for modest dress codes and sex-segregated environments for women’s participation. Educational barriers exist where teachers are unaware of the needs of their students and sporting structures can exclude their participation where inflexible rules and regulations regarding dress and gender organisation exist. The most contested area is the wearing of the hijab (or headscarf), which is banned in some schools, some countries and by some sporting federations. The root of the problem is in the tensions between fundamental human rights for religious freedom and for gender equality.

It is in this context that the researchers have collaborated to address ways in which greater participation for Muslim girls and women could be achieved. The role of physical activity in health and well-being has received high profile attention politically and the discourse of inclusion is about opportunities for all. This is not a reality for many Muslim girls and women.

Recently the authors of this article worked with the local Education Authority to address the increased parental withdrawal of Muslim girls from physical education in schools where religious requirements were not met. A citywide study took place, with a joint team of researchers from the University and City Education Authority, including national level consultation with the Muslim Council of Britain and the Association for Physical Education. A guidance document was produced for all schools to support greater knowledge and awareness of inclusion strategies. The research-to-practice study has been shared internationally through conferences and academic journal articles and has led to wider engagement of interested professionals in the subject. 

This local problem is reflected in diverse experiences of Muslim women internationally. Following the local study, a Leverhulme Fellowship led to Benn and Jawad being involved in the first international study week on improving opportunities for Muslim women in sport, hosted by Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. One outcome was a consensus Declaration ‘Accept and Respect’[i] which recommends that sport providers respect the diverse ways in which women choose to participate in sport with regard to dress code, gender organisation and type of activity. Another outcome was the first book to include the international voices of Muslim women sharing diverse accounts of their sporting experiences from 14 countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East[ii]. Here are some of these voices: . Here are some of these voices: which recommends that sport providers respect the diverse ways in which women choose to participate in sport with regard to dress code, gender organisation and type of activity. Another outcome was the first book to include the international voices of Muslim women sharing diverse accounts of their sporting experiences from 14 countries across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Here are some of these voices:

“It’s … a challenge, first between the other teams and us, second for the society, because as you know (it’s) a male-dominated society we live in; it’s a challenge to prove that we are as good as boys and men and we can also play soccer as they do” And another: “I wish that sport could take its place in our society and that those in power reconsider the matter of the participation of women in sport”

And again: “I just want them to accept me just the way I am. Yes I am a Muslim, wishing to cover my head, but I am a top-level athlete too and I am very enthusiastic to win medals….this should be the main point”

Despite the challenges, the most recent one was, for example, in June 2011 the International Football Association FIFA banned the Iranian women’s football team from a pre-youth-Olympic qualifying game because of the hijab. There are also success stories, for example, an alumni of the University, Dr Aisha Ahmad, went to the Islamic Women’s Games in Iran, 2005, competing in the British Muslim Women’s football team and this year has started an interfaith charity called ‘All Sports Women’ in the city (seen with flag in photograph). 

Borrowing from the closing statement of the book ‘Muslim Women and Sport’, the researchers of the University of Birmingham have been committed to ensuring: “… negative stereotypes of Muslim women are challenged, awareness of difference is increased and solidarity of support for the rights of all women in sport is entrusted to ‘accepting and respecting’ the choices and voices of others”.


[i] ‘Accept and Respect’ is available at www.iapesgw.org.

[ii] Benn, T., Pfister., & Jawad, H. (2011), Muslim Women and Sport, London, Routledge.

Cross-disciplinary research activities related to improving opportunities for Muslim girls and women in physical education and sport have been a feature of long-term collaboration between Dr Haifaa Jawad Senior Lecturer in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, from the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion and  Professor Tansin Benn from the School of Education.