Swimming cap

Society likes to prescribe women what to do with their hair. In several countries, Muslim women are not allowed to wear a headscarfIn several countries, religious head coverings are not allowed, often in places like schools and government buildings. Countries that know 'burqa bans' or other restrictions on veils and headscarves include Muslim-majority countries (like Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt) as well as Muslim-minority countries (France, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, for instance). In other places (including Saudi Arabia and Iran), women are required to cover their hair either by law or by custom. Regardless of whether head coverings are banned or mandated, such rules restrict women's freedom of choice to dress how they seem fit.× close, schoolgirls must tie their hair and now, during the 2021 Olympics, black women with natural hair must not wear the swimming cap that fits them best. The International Swimming Federation (FINA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the Soul Cap – a swimming cap that gives room to voluminous, curly natural hair – thereby raising another entry barrier to the Olympics for women athletes of colour.

According to FINA, the Soul Cap doesn’t “fit the natural form of the head”. Presenting traditional swimming caps as the norm is one thing. Calling the head shapes of white athletes with straight hair “natural” – and, by implication, those of curly-haired swimmers “unnatural” – is quite another.

In an attempt to explain the ban, FINA stated that to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require … caps of such size and configuration”. If anything, this foundering reasoning demonstrates the underrepresentation of people of colour within the FINA and their unwillingness to take the needs of women athletes of colour seriously. It also represents a general lack of access to the sport for people of colour, which is further reflected in the fact that only 2% of UK swimmers are Black and Black children in the UK are three times more likely to drown than white children.

A group of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) rightfully protested the ban of the Soul Cap in a letter sent to the IOC on July 19, 2021. Dutch MEP and initiator of the letter Samira Rafaela remarked that whilst the ban is designed to level the playing field – just like discriminatory rules for women’s shorts lengths and testosterone levels – it in fact has the opposite effect: It excludes swimmers with thick, curly hair. Most of whom (surprise!) happen to be Black women.

Fortunately, we have politicians standing up against such exclusion and loud calls for change from activists (like the Black Swimming Association), media and swimmers. Do you stand in support of swimmers of colour with natural hair? Speak out and think twice before putting on the swimming races on TV, until the IOC and FINA have lifted the ban.