In the West, Muslim women in modest clothing are often perceived as static figures who lack freedom of expression and exist under the thumb of an oppressive patriarchy. This assumption is generally inaccurate, troublesome, and outdated. In this post, I explore pious athleticwear, which describes the ways Muslim women use clothes when engaging in physical activity. While there are numerous ways Muslim women dress for sports, I focus on the much-discussed burkini as a piece of pious athleticwear. I use Hamila Aden’s spread in Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue” to analyze how burkinis empower Muslim women and are used to create new norms about Islam and Muslim women.
Pious athleticwear, a term adapted from Liz Bucar’s Pious Fashion, describes the sartorial pieces and practices that enable Muslim women to partake in athletic activity without compromising their religion or covering preferences. Pious athleticwear is part of an outward-facing, visual communication system that conveys the compatibility between Islam and modernity in everyday sports and practices, from ballet to boxing. The appearance of pious athletic wear varies depending on physical activity. For example, an athlete may wear a polar fleece Capster (a brand of form-fitting head coverings) to cycle outside during the winter but don the Nike Pro Hijab for a fencing match. While pious athleticwear manifests in different styles, overarching sartorial themes exist. A critical component of pious athleticwear is the use of a hijab to cover one’s head. Pious athleticwear is characterized by high necklines and fabric that covers to the wrists and ankles. Showing a minimal amount of skin implies modesty. As a modest garment, the burkini exemplifies modernity by combining function, fashion, and faith.
This year, Halima Aden made history as the first woman who wore a burkini and hijab in Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue.” Various styles of pious athleticwear splash across the pages and feature bright colors, eye-catching patterns, and designer accessories that reflect current trends. In one image, Aden wears a two-piece set from designer Cynthia Rowley. The top piece is composed of a head covering, long sleeves, with a thigh-length hem that flares out from the body. The bottoms are loose-fitting leggings that reach the ankle. Rowley’s signature color-block design and vibrant colors distinguish the outfit. When worn together, these two garments create a pious, sporty look and counter the idea that for Muslim women, covering is confined to drab, dark pieces. A different photo displays Aden in a red bodysuit with a Gucci hat covering her hair. A Gucci scarf with red detailing is re-fashioned as a sarong and layered over the bodysuit. In another shot, pious athleticwear is created by mixing high and low pieces that are modest. A pink one-piece from Amazon that stretches from under Aden’s chin down to her wrists and ankles is worn with a floral patterned, fuchsia nylon hood from Gucci. The incorporation of Gucci pieces exemplifies pious athleticwear’s receptiveness to current trends; at present, Gucci is the fastest-growing luxury brand and is ranked the fourth most valuable brand in the world (Handley, 2018). Moreover, luxury apparel that is modestly styled highlights the compatibility between Western fashion houses (which are usually regarded as secular) and religious norms of covering. The plethora of burkinis and head coverings display a variety of interpretations and illustrate the innovative and flexible nature of pious athleticwear.
By featuring Aden in pious athleticwear, Sports Illustrated highlights modestly covered Muslim women and promotes inclusion. Muslim women who wear pious athleticwear, especially burkinis, are a hypervisible group that lacks positive representation. Particularly in the West, Muslim women who choose to wear burkinis stand out among the majority of uncovered swimmers. In 2016, France banned the burkini. France’s criminalization of the burkini, and therefore criminalization of Muslim women who cover, is a manifestation of deep-set Western racism, sexism, and intolerance of Islam. Most notably, armed French police forced a woman wearing pious athleticwear to remove her long-sleeved tunic. The police issued her a ticket, stating she failed to wear an outfit “respecting good morals and secularism” (Quinn, 2016). Muslim women in burkinis are a distinct group vulnerable to attacks based on racism, sexism, and intolerance of Islam. Muslim women who wear burkinis are often either excluded from Western media or portrayed in a negative light. Thus, Aden’s inclusion in the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” can be understood as much-needed and long-overdue positive representation.
One case of a Muslim woman in pious athleticwear in Sports Illustrated does not resolve issues of representation, sexism, racism, and anti-Islam rhetorics, beliefs, and views. When recognizing the positive impact of Aden’s feature, one must be aware of the greater systemic issues of how, when, where, and for what purpose Muslim women in pious athleticwear are portrayed. As a woman in a burkini in Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue,” Aden certainly serves as a role model to other Muslim women who cover. However, by featuring Aden as the only woman in pious athleticwear, she is invented into a “neat cultural icon” representing progress, diversity, and modernity (Abu-Lughod, 2002). As the audience, it’s our duty to recognize that Aden does not represent all Muslim women. Aden’s presence in the “Swimsuit Issue,” while noteworthy, is simply one instance of a long-overdue positive portrayal of Muslim women in pious athleticwear in Western media. Sports Illustrated featuring a Muslim woman in a burkini cannot be a one-and-done occurrence. We need to build upon Aden’s Sports Illustrated spread and further the progress of positive representation by recognizing and including more Muslim women in pious athleticwear, which will involve rethinking our perception of and approach to piety, Muslim women, and the burkini.
The burkini is often viewed as a tool to liberate Muslim women. This perspective is grounded in the antiquated assumption that Muslim women are hopelessly oppressed. Thus, Muslim women are constructed as one-dimensional icons that must be rescued from their culture and saved to the liberal, “secular” West (Abu-Lughod, 2002). On the other hand, the burkini is seen as an oppressive tool enforced by Islamic values and used by the patriarchy to control and force the values of modesty and piety on women and their bodies. These two stances – viewing pious athleticwear as a tool for either saving or oppressing Muslim women – ignore Muslim women’s autonomy. The real power of the burkini lies somewhere between the two ends of this spectrum. The burkini gives women freedom not from oppression but increased freedom to participate in athletics while remaining covered and upholding personal values. The onus lies on us, the audience, to decide how we choose to view not only Aden in this specific instance of the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue,” but also Muslim women wearing pious athleticwear in general: as objects, oppressed subjects, exoticized fetishes, neat cultural icons, role models, modern and empowered women, individuals with autonomy, or some combination of the above.
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Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783–90. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2002.104.3.783.
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Quinn, Ben. “French Police Make Woman Remove Clothing on Nice Beach Following Burkini Ban.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 23, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/french-police-make-woman-remove-burkini-on-nice-beach.
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