Walseth, K. (2006) ‘Young Muslim Women and Sport: the impact of identity work’, in Leisure Studies 25 (1): 75—94.

This article discusses the interchange between Muslim identities and sporting participation. One important aspect of the argument is to challenge the conventional wisdom that Asian females are hostile to sport. The article goes on to consider the theoretical and methodological context and dilemmas in studying this topic.

Culture for example, should not be seen as fixed and essential but as constructed of contested processes and discourses—‘a battleground of meaning more than a shared point of departure’  (76). [There seem to be both gramscian and Bourdieuvian notions of the battling social groups here]. Gender is often at the heart of these battles. As a result, ‘the development of identity is constantly negotiated as a result of influence by different socialization agents’ (76). This involves ‘”identity work”’. Here, identities are socially constructed according to different situations, leading to different possible identities and sometimes identity conflicts. Second generation immigrants are particularly vulnerable to such conflicts, since they are no longer sustained automatically by their parents’culture. Often, work on cultural minorities simply assumes that they are heavily constrained and controlled by parental culture. This is sometimes contrasted with an equally suspect notion that members of the host community are completely free to make individual choices and develop authentic selves.

Identities in fact have both collective and individual aspects. With ethnic cultural identities, it would be a mistake to see them as simply hegemonic. There may be ‘primordial; cultural/transcendent; and civic’ cultural identities (78). [These seem to range from ascribed to achieved identities, or possibly sacred to profane].

21 young Muslim women were interviewed, with one stage of the interview involving a life history. The author goes on to discuss the problems of interviewing people from minority cultures to which the interviewer does not belong (81—83). Positions reviewed include those who suggest that interviewers from different cultures should not interview each other through various standpoint. This author argues that because she knows some of the interviewees, having taught them, and because she has studied Islam, she has enough common ground. A sensitivity to identity work is some kind of guarantee that she will not be stereotyping either. There were some alterations to the details to preserve anonymity.

Results are organized according to three of the subjects. The first one was experiencing cultural conflict, emanating largely from parental desires to maintain the ‘life script’ provided by parental culture. In particular, traditional conceptions of femininity were not compatible with the participating in sport. Cultural traditions were reinforced by family relationships. Nevertheless, some opportunities for sport in a suitable traditional context were offered—but declined. Femininity in this case means ‘prudence and inactivity’ (86).

The second one offered more of a challenge to the traditional ethnic identity, and to parental ideas. This person has become more involved in sport, despite parental disapproval and early attempts to restrain her. Some of the respondents reported being bullied by ethnic minority boys, and members of the cultural group as well as parents—even neighbours and strangers. One respondent said that even taxi drivers from the same minority group would sometimes contact the family to report her behaviour.

An interesting option arises in the third case, where young women seem to be able to split religious identity and ethnic identity. Thus it becomes possible to identify with Muslims, but to become more independent from the traditional culture. Young women are even able to argue with their parents over whether or not traditional cultural practices are really supported by Islam. In particular, it is possible to use the authority of Islam to support becoming fit and healthy. On a more practical scale, young women are able to wear the veil as a sign of the Islamic identity, but still to participate in sport. In this way, they gain some space for independence. The author notes that some Muslim feminists use the same tactics. However, this is still only partial disembedding: the possibilities are still framed and subject to the constraint of not being accepted as either traditional or modern. Nevertheless there are some interesting combinations which serve to satisfy both groups—wearing both the veil and trousers, for example.

Thus a number of ways of accommodating the influences of traditional culture are possible. Leaning towards Islam itself can permits sports participation. Nonetheless, there are still considerable sanctions emanating from traditional culture. In particular, ‘To participate in sport implies that one attracts attention to oneself, one competes in front of others and one might be watched screaming for the ball or showing aggression’ (91). There are also social consequences such as spending time away from home and in the company of majority culture people. There are also barriers from gender specifically. Overall, however, these sources of identity are becoming more fluid and open to negotiation.

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