Challenging women's uniform in sport
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Recent conversations around women’s uniforms have highlighted the deep-rooted sexism that often prevails in the sporting field.

Women’s participation in sport, at both elite and grassroot levels, has been limited due to a number of factors, but most of them boil down to sexism – many think that it is immodest for women to jump around, play and even enjoy themselves. However, as more women have started to join in sport and play, new ways of restricting them have propped up, and one of these is through dress codes.

Denying agency

In elite sport, women’s dress codes are modified to suit the whims of authorities – mostly men. There are some sports where female athletes are asked to dress ‘modestly,’ and to cover up. For example, in 2017, the Ladies Professional Golf Association passed guidelines banning leggings, "plunging necklines" and shorts or skirts that don't sufficiently cover a player's "bottom area."

Yet there are other sports where women are not allowed to dress modest. For example, the International Volleyball Federation dropped their requirement for female volleyball players to wear bikinis only in 2012, and up until 2004, the International Skating Union required female figure skaters to wear skirts.

Thus, it seems that women are unable to win – they are unable to choose clothes that they feel comfortable in, because they are made to abide by the whims of authorities who either want to ‘protect their modesty’ or make them ‘more appealing to fans and sponsors’. Either way, women are denied their agency, and are not allowed to wear the clothing they desire.

Limiting participation

When it comes to amateur and grassroot sport, many women are prohibited from engaging in sport and play, on the grounds that they will have to wear clothes that would be too revealing. Many parents in conservative societies restrict their daughters from playing sport because they do not want them wearing shorts and exposing their legs.

For women who wear the hijab, the conversation only gets more complicated, as many sports do not allow women to wear a headscarf while playing. Hence, many Muslim women are unable to participate in sport. Thus, not only are they restricted by their families and societies, the sports and games themselves do not allow them to take part. This double restriction on Muslim women’s participation in sport has meant that they remain underrepresented in many sports.

In 2007, FIFA imposed a ban on hijab after a young girl, Asmahan Mansour, was barred from playing for wearing a hijab at a grassroot level club in Canada. The matter was taken further by the Canadian Soccer Association and then by FIFA, who approved the ban on the hijab, stating safety as one of the main reasons. Despite no concrete evidence on hijab ‘strangling’ a player, the authorities stuck to the decision of banning headscarves on the field. This rule led to many young talented hijab-wearing girls to lose the chance to play football for the next few years. 

Changing the narrative

Women, however, have been changing the narrative and taking control of their bodies and the clothes they choose to wear. In recent times, women have attempted to challenge the discriminatory rules established by multiple sport authorities, starting conversations on the sexist clothing rules in sport.

The impact of ban on hijab could also be seen at the professional level. In 2010, the Iranian Women’s Football team was disqualified from the Youth Olympics for refusing to play without their hijabs. Post this, many Muslim women, activists and in fact, even a Jordanian prince were involved in exhaustive campaigning and lobbying to overturn the ban. This resulted in FIFA finally lifting the ban.

During the 2021 European Beach Handball Championship held in July in Bulgaria, the Norwegian Women’s Beach Handball Team was fined $1500 for wearing shorts instead of the bikini bottoms uniform mandated by the European Handball Federation. The Federation allows men to wear shorts, whereas women are required to wear a bikini bottom with a ‘close fit’. The Norwegian Team’s refusal to wear the bikini-bottoms exposed the Federation’s hypocrisy in setting clothing rules for women. The Norwegian Handball Federation backed the team up, as there has been no concrete response to the numerous complaints filed against the unjust dress-code.

A similar incident took place at the Tokyo Olympics – the German women’s gymnastics team wore full-body unitards to protest against the increasing sexualization of the sport. This was a move to defy the conventions in the sport - though the International Federation of Gymnastics does allow for full-body unitards to be worn by athletes, it has so far only been used by those that have dressed modestly for religious reasons. The German gymnast Sarah Voss referred to the required clothing as ‘uncomfortable’, legitimising this move to further encourage young athletes to stand up against abuse and unfair norms.

These instances point at the underlying misogyny in the operation and functioning of sport federations. The outdated dress-codes act as tools for sport authorities to police women’s bodies. However, recent examples, as illustrated above, indicate how women are taking the lead and challenging the societal expectation to present themselves a certain way. This can certainly change the narrative, as it gives the confidence to other women in sports to come forward and raise their voice against other such sexist practices


[Editor’s note: The original version of the article stated that the International Federation of Gymnastics rules did not allow for athletes to wear full-body unitards, unless for religious reasons. This was a mistake, which has now been edited to clarify that full-body unitards have previously been used by athletes only for religious reasons, though all athletes have been welcome to wear full-body unitards if they want to.]


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