The Hijab in Sports

Foreign Policy Brief #87 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | August 8, 2023

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The hijab is an article of clothing that has sparked debate for years due to its connections to the Islamic faith for some, and for others a tie to a social and political landscape based in the Middle East. The hijab is a form of head covering that women either of Middle Eastern descent, or Islamic faith, might wear. Across the world, head coverings are used as a means to show modesty or commitment to faith or connection to a specific culture. The hijab has not gone without controversy, especially in the post-9/11 world. Many places have banned the wearing of a hijab, while hypocritically allowing other head coverings to be worn. The FIFA Women’s World Cup, ongoing in Australia and New Zealand, has just had the first ever women’s soccer player to wear a hijab in a game. The wearing of the hijab in sports has grown so much that even major sports retailers are designing sports hijabs (such as Nike and Adidas). 


Nouhaila Benzina is the first woman to ever wear a hijab while playing in the Women’s World Cup. She is a top player for the Moroccan National Team. Coincidently, French courts upheld the country-wide ban on athletes wearing the hijab while playing football (otherwise known as soccer). According to The Local France, the hijab is banned while playing soccer but is acceptable in any other public space in France. However, in 2010 a law passed that made entire full-face coverings, such as the niqab and burqa illegal to be worn in public in France. The colonial history between Morocco and France is significant and is a means of tension between North African countries and the European power. The two teams will be playing against each other on August 8th, 2023. It is also worth noting that the Moroccan men’s team was booted from the men’s World Cup last by France. The women’s team is heading into the French match-up after winning two of their three initial matches of the tournament, while the French women’s team has also won two matches and drew level against Jamaica. 

Not all countries have dealt with the hijab the same as France, however. In fact, Finland’s Football Association hands out free sports hijabs to increase the diversity of the players in their country and to include people who may be otherwise excluded, according to Al Jazeera. It is interesting to note, that a Pew Research study found that out of 15 countries Finland held the most anti-Muslim sentiments out of the group. In another show of support for hijab wearing athletes, the state of Maryland passed a bill into law called the Inclusive Attire Act which allows student-athletes who wear a hijab to compete in their sport without fear of exclusion. 

Nike began making athletic and sports hijabs in 2017, and other companies (Adidas, Lululemon, etc) have followed suit since then. Sports such as football (soccer), running, weight lifting, and even water sports like swimming are becoming more and more hijab friendly due to these products being made regularly. The argument for this type of athletic wear is that a traditional hijab would be impractical for sport – it would slow someone down while running, could even be a safety issue perhaps in other sports, and/or just plain uncomfortable to wear. These new hijabs are made with top-notch quality athletic fabrics and are designed for an athlete to wear in competition. 

Though it is an incredible achievement for Nouhaila Benzina to be in the women’s World Cup and to wear her hijab, it must be noted that there are several other athletes before her that have worn hijabs in competition. According to an article in Rolling Stone, in 2016 at the Rio Olympics, the first women to wear a hijab and compete for the United States was fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (she took home a bronze medal); she even has her own fashion line which includes hijabs, called Louella. Other notable athletes are Hajar Abdulfazl the captain of the Afghanistan Women’s National Team, and Kulsoom Abdullah the Pakistani weightlifter. 

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