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Un/dress codes in sport

A close-up of a green playing field with dividing lines.

Historically, sport has been the domain of men – going as far back as the ancient Olympics, women were not allowed to participate, or even attend, the games. In the modern era, this sexism has continued, with women having to negotiate their participation in sport with patriarchal institutions which have viewed women’s participation in sport as ‘immodest’.

As women’s rights and equality have advanced, their participation in sports has also increased, both recreationally and professionally, at the elite (meaning at the highest level of performance) and grassroots (sports at the local level, for all ages, for health, educational or social purposes) levels. However, restrictions to accessing sport for women remain, with one of the foremost ways being the imposition of dress codes.

Dressing up, Dressing down.

At the professional sport level, international sport federations and governing bodies have imposed various restrictive dress codes on female athletes. There have been federations that have disallowed women to wear certain clothes, owing to their ‘revealing’ nature. For instance, in 2017, Ladies Professional Golf, banned leggings, “plunging necklines” and shorts or skirts that don’t sufficiently cover a woman’s “bottom area” as the federation wanted players to “look professional.”

In some other federations, female athletes are often mandated to wear revealing clothing, and this restricts participation as well, since many may not be comfortable doing this. Further, female athletes are often overly sexualised due to the imposition of prescribed uniforms. In a recent instance, the Norwegian Women’s Beach Handball Team was fined Euros 1500 for wearing shorts instead of the bikini bottoms uniform mandated by the European Handball Federation at the July 2021 European Beach Handball Championship. The International Handball Federation allowed men to wear shorts. The rules were changed in October 2021 to allow women to wear “short tight pants with a close fit”. Similarly, the International Volleyball Federation previously required women to wear bikini tops and this policy was changed in 2012 to allow for cultural inclusivity.

While many governing bodies have stated that the reason for uniforms is to enhance athletes’ performance, by disregarding female athletes’ physical comfort, rules about uniforms can negatively impact performance as well. There are numerous such policies, which point at the prevalence of male domination in policy-making with a clear lack of gender diversity and representation in these governing bodies.

If we look at the composition of major international sport federations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), we find that women represent 37.5 percent of IOC members and 33.3 percent of the IOC Executive Board Members. While this is commendable gender representation, the IOC is an anomaly in terms of sports federations. In FIFA (International Association Football Federation), there are only 7 women on its 37-member council responsible for shaping the organisation’s strategic decisions and policies. As per the current data, the council consists of 8 vice-presidents and none are women. The International Handball Federation, which recently revised its policy on dress code, has just two women on its 16-member council who are also on the executive committee.

While there are efforts being made to enhance gender representation in these federations, the current statistics are reflective of the glaring gaps in the representation of men and women at the policy-making level. Moreover, women are largely missing from the higher ranks, making their representation feel more tokenistic than meaningful.

Lack of women’s representation in policy-making institutions has allowed men, often with minimal understanding and empathy, to decide what women in sports can or cannot wear. As a result, these policies have ended up undermining women’s comfort as well as agency.

Challenging the rules

Despite discriminatory and limiting policies, women in competitive sports have been challenging these rules and taking charge of the narrative. Through remarkable efforts, many female athletes have been able to highlight the gender bias in clothing rules in sports, initiating a pertinent conversation on women’s control over their bodies.

Some snapshots from history are in order here. The institutional ban against wearing the hijab on the football field began when 11-year-old Asmahan Mansour, at a local football club in Canada in 2007, was told that she could not play wearing her hijab. She appealed to the Canadian Soccer Association and to FIFA but they upheld the ban on headscarves on the football field. This restricted many Muslim women from participating in the sport and they were outraged. The outrage was fuelled in 2010 when the Iranian women’s team was disqualified from the Youth Olympics for refusing to play without their hijabs and led to persistent campaigning and lobbying efforts of Muslim women and activists across the globe. As the movement intensified, with the involvement of the Jordanian prince, Ali Bin Al Hussein, the FIFA vice-president at that time, FIFA eventually overturned the ban in 2014.

Another example, mentioned earlier, is the Norwegian team’s refusal to wear bikini-bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championship in 2021 that created a row over the sexist uniform mandated by the European Handball Federation. This incident played an important role in highlighting the hypocrisy of the federation in setting separate clothing rules for men and women. More importantly, the Norwegian team’s actions set the stage for the federation to change the dress code in October 2021.

Similarly, at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the German women’s gymnastics team intentionally wore full-body unitards to protest against the sexualisation of the sport. Although the Federation of Gymnastics does allow athletes to wear full-body unitards, this move was more to challenge the underlying misogyny in the conventions of the sport. This act played an instrumental role in inspiring other young female athletes to speak up about unfair practices in the field of competitive sports.

Women in professional sports have started showing resistance by raising their voices against traditional notions and ideas that shape the management and operation of sports federations. This creates pathways for women to take charge of their bodies and motivate other women to lead change.

Games at the grassroots

In grassroots sports, women and girls often have to actively engage in various negotiations with multiple stakeholders including family, government, institutions and society to access sport, even if recreationally. Due to the popular perception of sport as essentially being a ‘masculine’ activity, it is often not considered acceptable for women. And therefore, women have to contend with opposition – beginning with restrictions on leaving the domestic space and entering public spaces. These public spaces are often not considered safe for women, and thus participating in sports becomes a safety issue for them. Further, many girls stop playing sport upon reaching puberty – they become more self-conscious about their bodies, they are told that it is inappropriate to engage in physical activity during their period, and are instructed to focus on more ‘feminine’ activities. This is not an issue limited to a certain part of the world – the issue is global.

An instance that exemplifies this in India is the struggles encountered by the football programme led by a grassroots organisation – Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS) – in Rajasthan, India. Girls in the football programme who managed to negotiate leaving the house to play still faced issues, with boys and men from their village often scattering glass in their playing field to obstruct them from playing. Engagement with multiple stakeholders, including boys and the village council, was required in order to get them to stop interfering with the girls’ football sessions.

Many women who participate in grassroots sports have faced the brunt of society through ridicule and exclusion. Often, women in grassroots sports are questioned about their character, and are regarded as ‘spoiled’ and ‘unsuitable for marriage’. MJAS faced similar challenges in running their football programme, as these ideas prevented many parents from sending their daughters to play.

As if overcoming the significant obstacles to participation in sport were not enough, dress codes add yet another layer of difficulty for women in grassroots sports. This happens at a societal and institutional level – women involved in grassroots sports are often not allowed to wear sports attire as it is viewed as ‘immodest’ and in violation of societal norms and expectations. For instance, when Pro Sport Development (PSD) started the Community Sport Program in community schools in Odisha, India, many school teachers objected to girls wearing jerseys and shorts. In order to deal with this issue, girls started wearing black slacks underneath their shorts, helping them manage this objection while enabling them to continue their participation in the programme. Secondly, institutions at the grassroots level, including schools, often mandate uniforms which can restrict participation in sport for women who are uncomfortable with them. A Victoria University study conducted in metropolitan, regional and rural areas in Australia found that many teenage girls drop out of sport as they feel embarrassed about wearing sports attire that puts their bodies on display and want sports uniforms that make them feel comfortable and confident.

Agency and comfort first

The debates around women’s uniform in sport highlight a core issue in sport – that it is still considered men’s space. At the professional level, women are often sexualised through rules about uniforms, making it seem as if they are ‘entertainers’ rather than athletes. And at the grassroots level, women and girls leaving the domestic domain to enter public spaces is seen as an infraction of societal rules.

With sport often deemed as the domain of men and boys, women and girls have to constantly fight for their right to play. Yet, women and girls at both local and professional levels have begun taking charge of the narrative, subverting societal expectations of them.

Because the odds are stacked against girls and women in sport, it is imperative that organisations that are working to promote participation in sport – from grassroots organisations to sport governing bodies and international federations – take charge to foster inclusion in sport. Policies on dress codes should offer flexibility, as that helps increase participation of women in sports. It is highly important for these policies to let go of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and acknowledge diversity among women. And if that means allowing women and girls to choose to dress the way they want, then so be it.

Cover Image: Photo by calvin jung on Unsplash