Religious clothing is a way of expressing one’s faith, identity, and culture. However, for some athletes, wearing religious clothing can also mean facing discrimination and resistance from the authorities or the public. In recent years, there have been several incidents where religious clothing was banned or challenged in sports, especially for Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish athletes.
One of the most controversial cases was the ban on hijabs, or headscarves, for Muslim women athletes in France. The French government passed a law in 2023 that prohibited the wearing of any religious symbols or clothing in public spaces, including sports venues. The law was criticized by many human rights groups and activists as a violation of religious freedom and a form of Islamophobia. Many Muslim women athletes protested against the law and refused to comply with it. For example, French boxer Sarah Ourahmoune wore a hijab during her match at the European Championships in 2023 and said that she was fighting for her rights and dignity.
Another example of religious clothing being banned in sports was the case of Sikh turbans. Sikh men are required to wear turbans and keep their hair uncut as a sign of their faith. However, they have faced discrimination and exclusion from some sports because of their turbans. For instance, in 2013, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) banned two Sikh players from India from playing in the Asia Cup because they refused to remove their turbans. The ban was lifted in 2016 after a two-year trial period and a global campaign by Sikh organizations and supporters.
Jewish athletes have also faced challenges or discrimination because of their religious attire or symbols, such as kippahs, necklaces, or tattoos. For example, in 2017, the International Judo Federation (IJF) banned Iranian judoka Saeid Mollaei from competing in the World Championships because he wore a necklace with a Star of David. In 2012, American swimmer Anthony Ervin was asked to cover his tattoo of the Star of David during a competition in Dubai.
Some athletes have also faced resistance from wearing clothing that was not religious but was designed for medical reasons or out of necessity for their race. For example, the Soul Cap is a swimming cap designed for people with Afro hair, dreadlocks, braids, or other hairstyles that may not fit in regular caps. The Soul Cap was banned by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) from being used in the Tokyo Olympics and other international competitions. FINA said that the Soul Cap does not follow “the natural form of the head” and that there was no need for such caps since no athletes had used them before. However, after facing pressure from various sources, FINA announced that it would review its decision and consult with the Soul Cap makers and other stakeholders. FINA also said that it was committed to ensuring that everyone has access to swimming and that it respected diversity and inclusivity.The ban for the Tokyo Olympics was lifted.
A medical example was the catsuit worn by American tennis star Serena Williams at the 2018 French Open. The catsuit, which covered her entire body except for her arms, was designed to prevent blood clots and enhance circulation. Williams had suffered from life-threatening blood clots after giving birth to her daughter in 2017. However, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) banned the catsuit from being worn at future tournaments. The FFT president said that the outfit did not respect the game and the place. The ban still stands in 2023.
These are some of the incidents where religious clothing or clothing designed for medical or aesthetic reasons was banned or challenged in sports. These incidents show how some athletes face discrimination and resistance because of their clothing choices and how they fight for their rights and dignity.