Home PodcastJulie Alli Challenges faced by Muslim athletes: The case of Naqeebah Fredericks and the Commonwealth Judo Championships amidst Women’s Month

Challenges faced by Muslim athletes: The case of Naqeebah Fredericks and the Commonwealth Judo Championships amidst Women’s Month

by Luqmaan Rawat
It is long overdue for such rules to be removed so Muslim women can participate in sports without being discriminated against

South Africa – Amidst the celebration of Women’s Month, a rather saddening incident that has sparked outrage and debate. South African Judo champion, Naqeebah Fredericks was denied the opportunity to receive her medal on the podium due to her wearing a headscarf, known as a hijab. Something which is a significant aspect of her identity.

Fredericks, who in just under three years of competing, came out third, clinching the bronze medal at the 2023 Commonwealth Judo Championship. However, her moment of triumph was tarnished when she was instructed to remove her hijab before stepping onto the podium to accept her well-deserved medal. The demand left her shocked, disheartened and she did not join the ceremony.

“At the time I didn’t feel great because I trained very hard, and I couldn’t take a picture at the podium because they wanted me to take my scarf off. I didn’t attend [the ceremony].”


Emotional impact on Fredericks and reactions

The incident had a profound emotional impact on Fredericks. She had worked diligently to secure her position on the podium, and being asked to remove her headscarf at that pivotal moment left her teary-eyed and bewildered. Fredericks’ parents, Rashida and Luqman Fredericks, who were present in the stands, also felt the weight of the incident. Rashida expressed her suspicions regarding the sudden request to remove the headscarf, considering her daughter had never encountered such a demand before.

“She was obviously burning to step on the podium as it is something that she worked hard for and actually achieved that day. She was actually very teary-eyed for being asked to remove her headscarf at that moment. We were actually in the stand and I did advise her. I was suspicious about them asking her to remove her headscarf. She obviously has never done it before, especially on this type of platform. She was actually a bit confused about the whole situation because she’s always on the podium with her headscarf on.”


Clash of rules and discontent

The crux of the matter lies in the conflicting rules and regulations surrounding the acceptance of headscarves during podium presentations. According to Luqman there are discrepancies between the International Judo Federation (IJF) rules and the rules specified in the Commonwealth Judo Championship. While the IJF explicitly prohibits wearing a headscarf during the medal ceremony, the championship did not explicitly state this restriction.

“I questioned the Sports Director. I continuously asked if it was an IJF event and she wouldn’t answer me. Then I asked if all the athletes have approved IJF judogi which I knew it wasn’t. We’ve competed at the SA open twice. Naqeebah came second and she received her medal with her headscarf last year. My other daughter received her medal with the headscarf on. In all the podiums whether it be for the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, there were no issues with headscarves on the podium.”

There were a lot of other IJF rules that were infringed during the tournament. While the IJF rules explicitly states an athlete cannot wear a headscarf, the Commonwealth Judo Championship does not state anything regarding this matter. The rule for accepting a medal is for the athlete to wear a white judoki. Therefore, Luqman argued that his daughter adhered to the championship’s rules by wearing a white judogi during the medal ceremony, as stipulated.


The bigger question 

While the family has decided to go down the legal route, a bigger question must be answered. Why does the IJF still employ such discriminatory rules? Muslim women athletes should not be forced to choose between their faith and their passion for sports. Denying them the right to celebrate their achievements while observing their religious practices not only diminishes their accomplishments but also perpetuates exclusionary practices within the sports community.

There can be no excuses for such laws to be in place. If we look towards other sports, we will find those like Zahra Lari, Emirati figure skater, who participates in her sports wearing a headscarf. Nike as well as others have created headscarves for various sports. Jamad Finn is a basketball player who also wears a headscarf while she plays. We also have Morocco’s Nouhaila Benzina who became the first player to wear a hijab at the World Cup as well as Heba Saadieh who made history by becoming the first Palestinian to referee at a World Cup and did that while wearing a headscarf.

Nike has been making headscarves for athletes since early 2018. There are other companies such as Ahida, Raqtive, LiaWear, Asiya Sport, Capsters and Adidas that make headscarves and could certainly make one to fit the requirements of judo. 

This incident shines a spotlight on the challenges faced by Muslim athletes who seek to participate in sports while maintaining their religious identity. The clash between religious practices and sports regulations has prompted a crucial conversation about inclusivity, religious freedom, and cultural sensitivity within the sports arena. As society continues to evolve, it is imperative that sports organisations reassess their rules to ensure that they do not inadvertently discriminate against any athlete based on their cultural or religious beliefs.

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