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Jakarta Post

Hijab in blind judo? Athletes' safety comes first

  • Niken Prathivi
    Niken Prathivi

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, October 12, 2018   /   09:04 am
Hijab in blind judo? Athletes' safety comes first Indonesian judoka Miftahul Jannah leaves arena after being disqualified in women’s 52 kilograms blind category in the 2018 Asian Para Games at JIExpo Kemayoran in Central Jakarta on Monday. Miftahul could not compete in the event as regulations ban athletes to wear headscarf in blind judo over safety reason. (Antara/ Iqbal Ichsan)

Allow me to start this piece by extending my profound respect to all athletes with different abilities including participants of the ongoing Asian Para Games 2018 in Jakarta. 

As a hijab-wearing woman who exercises regularly and cycles, I wear a special sports hijab when exercising.

I carefully pick certain cloths for my headscarves because as a sports journalist my job requires me to move freely and safely.

So, when a passionate young judoka, Miftahul Jannah, wore a regular hijab to compete in a physical sport like blind judo — even when she knew the International Judo Federation (IJF) does not allow the covering of heads in the arena — safety was the only issue that popped into my mind. Nothing else.

Miftah, 21, was disqualified on Tuesday from competing in the women’s 52 kilogram low vision category at the Asian Para Games for refusing to take off her hijab.

While other martial arts, such as karate and taekwondo, allow female Muslim athletes to wear a special hijab during competition, judo does not. The IJF Refereeing Rules Article 4/4 says judoka’s heads shall not be covered, except for bandaging of a medical nature.

Moreover, the IJF sport and organization rules mention in an appendix on judogi (competing attire) that: “Any head covering, socks, jewelry or body piercings must be removed.”

The rules on “default and withdrawal” also state that, “any contestant not willing to comply with the requirements of hygiene, hair and the head cover regulation […] shall be refused the right to compete” and thus the opponent shall win.

An additional rule says, “[...] Athletes must enter and leave the field of play wearing their judogi in the proper way. […] Religious, political, personal or commercial connotations are prohibited on the field of play.”

So yes, the decision to disqualify Miftah was not about her religious views at all. 

But Miftah took her case to Youth and Sports Minister Imam Nahrawi, immediately gaining the minister’s attention. She admitted to him that she had known about the head covering regulation and said that her actions were deliberate, adding that she wanted to bring about a change in the sport. Imam backed the judoka, confirming his commitment to help her in challenging the IJF’s head covering rules. 

At a glance, Miftah seems to follow in the footsteps of Saudi Arabian judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, who managed to change the rules at the 2012 London Olympics when she wore a modified headscarf while competing.

Shaherkani was one of the first two Saudi Arabians chosen to compete in the Olympics.

When it comes to freedom of faith, the news made headlines in no time, cloaking the case in a religious-based narrative.

But wait, let us clear things up. 

Judo is a sport played at both the Olympics and Paralympics. The Asian Para Games is similar to the Paralympics. 

Although the sport upholds the IJF rules in both the Olympics and Paralympics, judo and para judo are not the same, which makes it improper to take Shaherkani’s case to challenge the IJF’s head covering rules. 

In response to the misinterpretation of Miftah’s disqualification, Brian Jeoung Gissick, a technical delegate for blind judo, said: “Of course blind judo has its own uniqueness that is different to able-bodied judo.”

Gissick added that IJF rules also stated that athletes should tie their hair with rubber bands to ensure safety among contestants.

Heads should not be covered, except for adhesive bandages or medical tape, he added.

“The rules are made to protect the athletes [...],” said Gissick, adding that they were made following thorough research. 

International Blind Sport Association (IBSA) referee director Angelica Wilhelm said the basic rules regarding the covering of heads had been introduced to Asian Para Games participants over the past three months.

“The rules were also made to avoid disastrous results for athletes [during] nezawa [ground fighting],” said Wilhelm, referring to grappling techniques that include clinching, takedowns, throws and sprawling. 

Indonesian Asian Para Games Organizing Committee (INAPGOC) head Raja Sapta Oktohari said he respected the IJF’s rules and Miftah’s decision.

“This has been a valuable lesson for all of us. It is important to learn the regulations before we compete — not just for blind judo, but for all sports,” he added.

The Indonesian team reportedly had trouble comprehending the regulations, which are in English, and no complaint was made during a technical meeting regarding the head-covering matter prior to the Games.

As a Muslim like Miftah, who has decided to switch to blind chess after the incident, I fully respect her passion to fight for hijab-wearing athletes, and the minister in backing her. 

But then again, is Indonesia ready to do the necessary research on the possibility of the wearing of the hijab in blind judo and also the required diplomacy?

Blind judo masters, hijab-wearing judo practitioners, sports scientists and even sports fashion gurus should discuss the feasibility of wearing the hijab in the sport. 

Because when it comes to the Olympics and Paralympics, athletes’ safety comes first.