Note: The post was rewritten into an article (in Bahasa Indonesia) and published at Madina Online, entitled 'Ekspresi Keberagamaan, Olahraga, dan Ruang Publik'.
'Does a space need to be devoid of all religious expression in order to be 'public'?'
This morning, I read a feature article in the newest Tempo Magazine on how sports regulation has made it difficult for female muslim athletes to participate. US weight lifter regional champion Kulsoom Abdullah (who is also Pakistani-descended and has a PhD in electronic engineering) was banned from the national championship for wearing a hijab. After protests lodged by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR, who is alleged by the US 'liberal' media as Hamas aligned), the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) is to hold a meeting by the end of this month to decide whether or not the rules should change.
FIFA also prohibited (although sources vary on the degree of the prohibition) the Iranian female football team to participate in the 2012 Olympics, in reference to Law 4 Decision 1 which states that the equipment used by the players should not contain any political, religious or personal statements. Through discussion I had with several football observers, the law was established in the context of sustaining FIFA's political independence. And, as anticipated, Ahmadinejad called FIFA a colonialiser who imposes its lifestyle on its members.
To call sports organisations imperialists is perhaps far-fetched. Having observed several (media) institutions and organisations in my own line of work, I cannot not realise that these laws and prohibition stem from an interaction of its members (along with their ideology and background), their funding sources, and the sociocultural context of the period within which it occured. FIFA has had a long history of quite rigid political independence, with a unique current leader, Blatter, who once suggested female athletes to wear tight clothing to attract audience and advertisers.
A similar debate was stirred surrounding the Badminton World Federation (BWF)'s new rule for female badminton players to wear skirts. The rule was 'misinterpreted' by the global media as a means to make the game more attractive for advertisers and audience, which invited protests from moderate muslim countries such as Malaysia who insisted that their athletes should wear tights underneath. The rule was quickly clarified by the BWF that it was never intended to position their female athletes as sexual objects (and is this not another form of politics, not to mention the consideration of advertisers and audience).
Mentioning a sports arena as 'politically independent' is a myth. Where is the line drawn between fair sportsmanship and the politics of appearance? Was Zidane's being an immigrant not used politically by Chirac to shape a pluralist France? Is that not relatable to Abdullah's hijab? Limiting someone's religious identity to the equipment they use during a play is an oversimplification. You could still identify, by his or her physical appearance, their racial identity - which is also intertwined with someone's religious identity. Perhaps they should change their faces as well then.
If this is the issue, prohibiting the use of the hijab, which, as argued by this article, is more a transcendental communication than it is a social statement such as a Christian wearing a cross (which I would also defend by the way), becomes a moot point. The issue is more appropriately aligned with safety, as it is easier for the player to be harmed during a game; which could easily be answered with innovating a high impact sports-safe hijab.
It's really overoptimistic to think that there could be a politically free public space. I think every member of society comes with their own ideological position - whether a muslim, an atheist, a feminist, a patriarch, an ultra-nationalist or a nomad. Our social position is an extension of our personal identity, and to become neutral is a myth. A public space is only as peaceful and civil (for lack of a better term) as our ability between members to respect and tolerate other, even disconfirming, forms of expression. One of the most important spaces is through sports (and its mediatisation). Its central notion that a game is 'fair' and its players equals (including in their right to look different) can provide a space where winning and losing is regardless of our ideology and how we express it.
Because in truth, the world does not.