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As a piece of advice to women writers, I might say “don’t read the comments”. It prevents triggering and exposure to abuse. Another piece of important advice to, well, anyone, would be CHECK YOUR FACTS. Particularly when writing about Muslim women in sport.
As a Muslim woman and a Sports Activist who writes, I dedicate my time to advocating for Muslim women in sport. My job requires me to be extremely in-tune to how stories about Muslim sportswomen are written. I research WoC and Muslimahs in sport daily. I check with fellow Sports Activists all around the world and with various media outlets for updates. I check tournament schedules, international competitions and Human Rights organizations for campaigns that might relate to my subject.
In previous MMW posts, I have written about the lack of nuance in mainstream media about women and girls in sports. I have critiqued the way the media is obsessed with hijab-wearing athletes and the way it ignores the rich histories of *all* Muslimah athletes.
Ibtihaj Muhammad is a world class sabre fencer. There have been many pieces from solid media outlets such as espnW and USA Today written about the incredible fencer. Muhammad is competing for a place on USA’s fencing team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she would be the first hijab-wearing athlete to represent the United States. I can understand how a supportive community would love to cheer her on. I certainly want to cheer her on. But not by creating non-existent awards for her.
It is absurd that I have to insist that publications do their homework. In a recent publication that was widely shared by prominent Muslim social media personalities, one particular article really took off. It declared that American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, was awarded “Best Fencer in the World”.
A friend of mine had sent me a link to that story in the morning. I respect Ibtihaj Muhammad immensely – I have admired her from afar and I have blogged of her achievements. Her accomplishments stand on their own. But I did not share the piece because I felt it sounded a bit off. I checked with some sports journalist colleagues and I also checked with USA Fencing. No such award.
I also used an intense digital resource called ‘Google’. Nothing.
Sharing the the triumphs and challenges of Muslimah athletes is what I do. So, when articles that are factually incorrect pop-up, and are amplified by people eager to support athletes from our communities, it is a difficult situation. I would hope that notable community figures share proper information because it is the right thing to do, not only because of their massive followings and large platforms.
If I attempt to clarify, I run the risk of being accused of being a disingenuous advocate of Muslimahs in Sport. But not trying to correct the misinformation does not help the athlete. In fact, it does her a disservice.
Dr.Sertaç Sehlikoglu, affiliated lecturer in at University of Cambridge and visiting fellow at LSE, agrees. Dr.Sehlikoglu’s work is in Social Anthropology, specializing in gender, religion and sport. She is the curator of the Muslim Women in Sports blog.
I asked her about the need to be precise with the information we share about Muslim sportswomen. “We don’t need to fabricate new achievements,” she told me. “By doing this, we diminish how difficult this level of competition is. It actually ignores existing challenges of Muslim women in sports. They have to work double and triple hard as others.”
Dr.Sehlikoglu knows about the importance of sharing crucial and correct information on Muslim women in sports. In fact, her blog initiative had been criticized by some in academia.
“People (academics in Canada) have criticized my blog by arguing that the title singles out Muslim women in sport- and how their presence in sports is a curious subject,” she explains. “Academics are good at critiquing but the practical implication is important. It provides a base for research and raise awareness. By not acknowledging the advancement of Muslim women is exactly how we create ivory towers and how academics create boundaries with the public. You make your information available through certain keywords.”
Access to this information is easy to obtain and important. Blogs like Muslim Women in Sports provides information and well-written articles on athletes all over the world. It is a great resource for writers interested in Muslimah athletes.
Recently, I saw another piece that was highlighting Emerati weightlifter Amna Al Haddad’s crowdfunding campaign. The Demureist had initially stated that she would be “The First Hijabi Weightlifter at the Olympics”. I knew this wasn’t correct. Again, a simple Google search would have prevented this. I reached out to them. Fortunately, they replied quickly and thanked me for the correction.
Excitement about hijab-wearing athletes is normal. In a society that still largely ignores athletic identifiable Muslim women, those who have made strides in sports should be lauded as resilient and inspirational. But when facts are made-up, they can also erase the sporting history of other athletes. Dr.Sehlikoglu tells me that this can be frustrating as it disregards decades and decades of accomplishments of previous athletes.
As grateful as I am for all the effort to support and highlight these athletes, it is disappointing that it has become necessary to police the information shared about Muslim women in sports.
I ended up posting about Amna Al Haddad on my own blog. As for Ibtihaj Muhammad, she is one of the greatest fencers in the world. Her medals and victories prove this. Sticking to the facts is a much better way to support her than making up awards.
Fabricating more success for already accomplished sportswomen is not helpful and creates a situation where the athletes can be unfairly criticized and judged.
Highlighting the achievements Muslim women is important. But when those achievements are exaggerated, it creates opportunity for Islamophobes and misogynists to attack them – through no fault of the athletes themselves. They deserve far better.