Last week, Germany’s women’s beach volleyball team defeated Egypt at the Rio Olympics. But what made the game newsworthy for many outlets was that one of Egypt’s players, Doaa Elghobashy, played in a hijab.
Throughout Olympic history few women have competed while wearing the hijab; the IOC’s dress code regulations have traditionally prevented this. Regulations stipulated that female beach volleyball players were required to wear shorter bikinis or one-piece swimsuits to compete.
But during the London Olympics in 2012 these regulations were loosened to allow the wearing of the hijab.
Images of Doaa Elghobashy wearing her hijab while playing against bikini-clad German players has been the focus of many news stories this week. The iconic image cited by many was originally published by Reuters:
In the image, the fully-covered Doaa Elghobashy is contrasted with Germany’s Kira Walkenhorst in her bikini.
According to an article by the BBC, “The pictures of Egypt’s women’s beach volleyball team playing Germany swept the internet yesterday, but while some people focused on what divided the players, others focused on what united them.” Indeed, sources typically reported that the game represented either a “clash of cultures” or the power of sport to unite players from around the world.
So we put the MediaMiser software to use to figure out which view was most prominent in coverage. Using a sample of online news content, we sought to determine if coverage of the game in the United States and Canada was really divided along these lines.
Having sampled 78 online articles following the Egypt vs. Germany game, it appears that most outlets presented images of the game as showing a cultural clash: Of sampled articles, 52 per cent mentioned that the images showed a division between the players’ cultures.
In other words, these outlets treated the teams as having different and inherently opposing cultures.
Coverage of Egyptian women’s beach volleyball – cultural clash or unity through sport?
Columnist Rosie DiManno of The Star similarly wrote, “I absolutely won’t laud the hijab as a symbol of inclusiveness at the Olympics. It is a religious and political trapping imposed on far too many women by patriarchic societies.”For example, The Daily Mail published an article titled “The cover-ups versus the cover-nots: Egyptian and German beach volleyball players highlight the massive cultural divide between Western and Islamic women’s teams.” In the article, Julian Robinson wrote that “these pictures show the contrasting cultures among some of the nations taking part in the Rio Olympics after the Egyptian women’s beach volleyball team took to the sandy area wearing long sleeves and leggings”
Other outlets that featured the clash angle included the Philadelphia Inquirer, US Weekly, and the London Times.
Unity through Sport
But while the cultural clash theme was featured most prominently, 37 per cent of articles discussed the image as showing how the Olympics or sports in general helps to unify countries or cultures, and can promote understanding between them.
In describing the imagery, Tod Perry of Good stated, “Last Sunday, at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, a spectacular photo was taken that exemplifies the power of the games to unite cultures from around the world.”
Lisa Ryan of Business Insider also saw the image as one that unified players instead of dividing. She wrote, “The contrast between the two women’s uniforms in the picture represents the best aspect of the Olympics. It demonstrates how the games are able to bring different cultures together, unifying them in their love of sports. ”
Outlets that featured the unity angle included Fortune, Reuters, Chicago Tribune and Metro New York.
There were also a small number of sources that saw these images as neither. The 11 per cent of articles whose coverage strayed away from the common themes typically criticized other outlets for focusing on the female players’ dress. These sources argued that players should be recognized for their athletic ability, over their choice in clothing.
For instance, Shireen Ahmed was published in the The Daily Beast writing, “These tropes are irresponsible as they not only pit women against women but are reductive. First and foremost, these women are athletes who have trained for years and are now competing on the world’s most important stage. The constant mentions of their headscarves are not always relevant considering there have been incredible female athletes who have competed in headscarves before Muhammad.”
In line with Ahmed, Deena Douara wrote for Metronews, “What I’ll be watching is two teams of strong women who have worked hard, put in long hours, overcome doubt, and made personal sacrifices leap towards a ball above a net. Which is really the only thing that should matter about this image.”
It appears that coverage of Doaa Elghobashy in the Egypt vs. Germany women’s beach volleyball
game can largely be divided into themes of ‘cultural clash’ and unity, while only a small number of writers spoke out against the use of these themes claiming that women’s dress in sports should not distract from their athletic abilities. As the IOC continues to debate the ban on the hijab in Olympic sports it will be interesting to see if the coverage will change.