“Empty cans make the most noise,” Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi said last month.
Religion, when it has something to say about a person’s own value in life, may well mean something.
When it becomes an institutionalised vehicle for repression and restriction, the personal becomes political. It instead becomes the directive of priests, moralists and institutional diktat.
The realm of sport has not been exempt from religious authority’s intrusive tentacles. As sport is an expression of the human body’s engagement with physicality, authorities are bound to have their say at some point. Where the functions and engagements of the body are concerned, from bed room to sporting hall, religious interpreters are bound to make noise.
In the case of gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, the winner of six medals, two of them gold at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, cheers would have been expected. We were instead greeted by a frothily enraged obsession, much of it bubbling in social media, pondering the shape of her supposedly exposed ‘aurat’ – the genitalia and thighs area requiring concealment.
Senior Islamic cleric Perak Mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria decided to pitch in, pondering what Hadi’s vagina was doing during the act. (She had other things on her mind at the time.)
“If Muslim women want to participate in gymnastics,” he explained to the publication Astro Awani, “they have to find outfits which cover the ‘aurat’ and this, in turn, might not be suitable for the sport.”
Cover up, it would seem, but what would be appropriate was not entirely clear. Islam, it was argued, could not countenance such a lascivious display in the sporting arena – or any others in public. The language sounds like that of a sex-starved committee meeting – the worst sort of committee meeting.
Often women following Islamic practices have to face the other side of how authority dictates their wear. They are wedged between what is demanded of them in faith, and by non-Muslim authorities who do not consider it as necessarily important, or compatible. Can the headscarf, for instance, be worn in various contact sports?
The Australian Play by the Rules site offers guidance to sporting coaches and practitioners about how to react to a range of issues: child protection, discrimination and the handling of complaints.
“The relationship between sports and religion may be awkward, but that is no reason for sports administrations to dismiss religion as ‘not their business’,” it says.
Dress code is a primary area of contention. Just as participation with certain religious symbols may be sought, pressure may also be exerted from the other side of the religious divide.
The underlying point with Hadi wasn’t even that. Go behind the pervert’s faux moralising, and the suggestion is that a Muslim woman of faith could not both engage in gymnastics and be a true follower.
“Gymnastics,” posed Harussani Zakaria, “is not for Muslim women. It is clear that exposing one’s aurat and the shape of one’s body is haram (forbidden in Islam).”
By implication, she would have to be excluded if the costume incompatibility could not be addressed. The aurat gazers would then have their way, and a gymnast of such talent would disappear. Not that it bothered the cleric, who suggested that the entire issue had been explained in the Quran.
“Don’t play with Islamic laws, our religion never said we can expose our aurat,” he said.
The outrage to such opinions proved heartening. The Malaysian federal minister for youth and sports Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar suggested that the judges had been “wowed” by the athlete’s performance and, “In her deeds only the Almighty judges her. Not you. Leave our athletes alone.”
Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) vice president Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun insisted that Hadi be celebrated. She issued a pointed rebuke to Harussani Zakaria in turn, showing how clothing attire and sports endures as a flashpoint.
“Let it be known that Arab countries and Muslim footballers in all continents across Europe, Africa and Asia have participated successfully in FIFA’s World Cup wearing short pants,” she said.
Here, a structural impediment was being placed upon the human form, masquerading as religious opinion. Gymnastic expression, with its suppleness and extraordinary dexterity, is hard to do with encumbrances. Free flowing gymnastics cannot be performed in a tent. Instead, the outraged view could only see vaginas on full display, even if one would have to look rather searchingly to reach the same conclusion.
Hadi’s situation had invariably spilled out from broader debates about dress codes centred on Malaysia’s fifth principle of the Rukun Negara – Kesopanan dan Kesusilan (Courtesy and Morality). Situation is everything. As deputy minister in the prime minister’s department Datuk Razali Ibrahim has explained, “we don’t want anyone to come to the government offices wearing only bikini or strip naked in the public.”
All this goes to show that the old mission of the censor, be it one officially sanctioned by the state, publicly inspired or enlisted by religious authority, remains powerful. The carnival of the dirty mind is never far away.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org