Can she win with the hijab? Aya Medany Finishes 16th in Olympic Pentathalon

By Femficatio News
6th August 2012, 14:46 GMT
Update 12th August 2012, 20:07 GMT

It’s just two hours before the closing of the Olympic ceremonies, with Aya Medany yet again missing out on a Gold. Today, she finished 16th in the Modern Pentathalon, with 5,136 points. She finished 18th with 1,136 points in swimming, 19th with 1,124 points in riding and 21st in the combined feats (fenching, pistol-shooting and running) with just 1,996 points – giving her the cumulative rank of 16th.

Laura Asadauskaite grabbed the Gold for Lituania, with Britain’s Samantha Murray taking the Silver and Brazil’s Yane Marques taking the Bronze.

We hope this isn’t the last of Aya, and she does decide to compete again. We’re interested to see if she’ll still insist on the hijab.

Taormina , 28 October 2011 , Penta Sicily, Photography by Augusto Bizzi

The Egyptian Aya Medany is making a different kind of Olympic history this 2012 London Games.  Being the only woman in the Modern Pentathlon to wear a hijab, she is again going for the Gold and taking a considerable risk.  As the Pentathalon consists of a 200-meter freestyle swim, a three kilometer cross-country run, a show jumping course, a pistol-shooting event, and a fencing event; her religious beliefs can pose some difficulty. She’s competed in the 2004 Olympics as the youngest in that category, and in the 2008 Olympics – both times failing to bring home a medal.

But never with head-covering.

She isn’t the only one competing in a hijab.  All the Saudi women are required to wear some sort of head covering to take part in the games (after strong lobbying from the International Olympic Committee to grant women’s participation, the Saudi Olympic Committee conceded the women could compete as long as the women’s religious practices were adhered to). Even though these women who are under Islamic law have been allowed to compete (many the daughters of multimillion, billion and trillionaire fathers and grandfathers), some may wonder about the classist implications of such machinations. The high cost of Islamic training gear, personal trainers, access to gyms has not furthered participation for the average woman under Islam. But in all fairness, we could raise questions of youth poverty and access in all nations.

Sarah Attar, with US dual citizenship, will be running the 800-metre with hair covered (though she trains without it) and Wojdan Ali will be competing in the women’s Judo competition with a scull-cap. These women arrived at the Olympic Games in full jilbab of black and check, giving the peace sign and excited to compete.

Aya Medany courtesy of

The jilbab is a full black, dark or coloured covering robe, veiling the entire body except hands, face and head – with a khimar usually used to cover the head; other coverings include the abaya and hijab, and these are traditional and mandatory dress for most Islamic women in the Arab world. The restriction of the attire raises issues of women’s oppression as it regulates a woman’s normal and equal participation in her society.  Even though there are globally feminist assertions about the sexist implications of such clothing, the personal reasons why the women themselves may continue to support such attire may not always be solely religious or about adherence to the legal code; for many women it may come from their need to express control over their own body – for protection against rape, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. It should be noted, though, that as a woman’s word is only one-half that of a man’s in court (Sharia Law), rape and sexual harassment is extremely difficult to prosecute in Islamic countries.  It has been proven the abaya, burqa, jilbab and hijab do not deter the rape of women – Islamic laws place women in an extremely vulnerable position, and exploitation of that vulnerability is how and why rape occurs.  Additionally, child marriages, “slave” wife status and forced polygamy are all forms of sexual and labour exploitation, and these practices are condoned within the Quran and Sharia Law.

When Aya first competed in 2004 and 2008 she was without head covering (and Saudi Arabia still had its ban on women competing in the Olympics).  Aya became more religious after finishing 8th in 2008 Olympics and began competing in the pentathlon in her hijab.  Some could say it was because of the media’s disappointment in her loss in 2008 that she has taken to covering her head, a way of getting back in the Olympic winners circle from a publicity standpoint in Egypt.  I would speculate that it was the changes in the governmental climate that put Aya more in line with her 90% Muslim Egypt – but this of course can not be proven.

Olympics 2008 – Aya Medany in form!

But what can be proven, is that unlike the Saudi women who are being forced to wear their hijab’s as part of capitulation by their governments to allow them to compete in the 2012 Olympics – Aya is wearing her hijab for herself.  And this choice toward being religiously observant is affecting her future prospects at Olympic Gold.  Aya almost chose not to compete in 2012 because of 2009 changes to FINA’s regulations regarding swimwear. Swimwear that would conform to Sunni Islamic beliefs covers the entire body up to the wrists and ankles, including the neck – and these are termed full-body swimsuits.

FINA’s fears of such “full-body swimwear” is due to the advent of “super-fast” swimwear. The in’s and outs of such swimwear is simplified as this – as swimmers move forward, the water pushes them backwards and this is called “friction drag”, causing the swimmers to swim harder.  Certain fish (such as sharks) overcome this rule of physics by possessing a “spiky” skin, which cuts through the water.  Nike, Speedo and other swimwear scientists have begun trying to replicate that which is found in marine biology, to give swimmers an advantage in competition and reduce strain on the athlete’s bodies.

Aya Medany of Egypt runs in the combined Running/Shooting during the modern pentathlon World Championships at Ippodromo di Tor di Quinto on May 10, 2012 in Rome, Italy.

Not all full-bodied swimwear is super-fast.  Honestly, the vast majority is cumbersome, and many women (seen mostly in Saudi Arabia) wear it baggy so it isn’t skin-tight against their bodies.  Also, the science around whether a swimsuit can even be super-fast (giving any sort of advantage over another opponent) has yet to be proven.

Their is a powerful cultural statement surrounding the hijab, that outweighs even the religious implications for a player sporting it at the global event that is the Olympics. Its hard to say whether women like Aya wear it solely for Allah, or are they in the camp where they are taking a stand for Middle Eastern/African culture, forging a statement of solidarity throughout the whole of the entire Arab world. In a country that is synonomous with the Arab Spring, it’s no wonder that Aya would risk running slower by wearing a head covering that some countries have banned.

What makes Aya one of the most interesting Olympiad’s this year is that she’s good – she ranks 29 in the World Senior Pentathlon and in May 2011 she finished 1st in Budapest. Yet she’s had a lot of obstacles.  Her performance since Budapest has been up and down.  The hijab will definitely make her slower, and due to previous injuries to her thigh muscles and the difficulty in maintaining a steady training schedule in the wake of the Egyptian Uprising, its hard to say how she’ll perform on the 12th of August this month.

Pentathlete Medany Shows Great Form at World Cup #1

Whether she brings home a medal this month or not, she is still making history.  The daughter of Dr. Mahmoud Medany (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as part of a group researching climate change with Al Gore), Aya is daring to be an original this Olympics Game, by playing by her own rules.

And though we may not all agree with the hijab,

we agree with the brave woman that is Aya Medany.

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