Postfeminist Paradoxes and Cultural Difference: Unpacking Media Representations of American Muslim Sportswomen Ibtihaj and Dalilah Muhammad

  • Sumaya F. Samie
  • Kim ToffolettiEmail author
Part of the New Femininities in Digital, Physical and Sporting Cultures book series (NFDPSC)


This qualitative analysis of mediated discourses produced in and by US media throughout August 2016 unpacks how postfeminist sentiments were used to frame two Muslim sportswomen who represented Team USA during the 2016 Rio Olympics: Ibtihaj and Dalilah Muhammad. Findings suggest that whilst both women were positively framed in and through a range of “individual willpower” and “empowerment” discourses, media articulations of their individualised femininity and feminist politics also consolidated a range of established myths about the Muslim female subject, and the superiority of Westernised forms of femininity. While Ibtihaj was sensationalised as a “hijab-wearing” heroine, Dalilah was depicted as an uncovered, self-assured, (athletic) “queen”. Hence, while Ibtihaj’s veiled success further corroborated notions of American neoliberal superiority, Dalilah’s uncovered success was an emblematic celebration of the superior forms of Western freedoms awaiting those who transcend religious and cultural affiliations.


Postfeminism Media Representation Muslim sportswomen Olympics 


  1. Abu-Lughod, L. (2002). Do Muslim women really need saving? American Anthropologist, 104(3), 783–790.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ahmed, S., & Matthes, J. (2017). Media representations of Muslims and Islam from 2000–2015: A meta-analysis. International Communication Gazette, 79(3), 219–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Amara, M. (2012). Veiled women athletes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics: Media accounts. International Journal of the History of Sport, 29(4), 638–651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Axon, R. (2016, August 22). 16 Most memorable moments of the Rio games. USA Today.Google Scholar
  5. Bell, K. (2016, August 5). A noble gesture for Michael Phelps? CNN Wire.Google Scholar
  6. Benn, T., & Dagkas, S. (2013). The Olympic Movement and Islamic culture: Conflict or compromise for Muslim women? International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 5(2), 281–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blake, A. (2016, August 25). Hillary Clinton essentially just called Donald Trump an unrepentant racist. Washington Post.Google Scholar
  8. Blount, R. (2016, August 8). US fencer wants to be “image” for black Muslim women. She aspires to change perception, create opportunities. Star-Tribune.Google Scholar
  9. Briselli, C. (2016, August 22). When in doubt of America’s worth, look to Team USA. U-Wire. Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.Google Scholar
  10. Brown, W. (2006). Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Bulbeck, C. (2001). How women’s studies students express their relationships with feminism. Women’s Studies International Forum, 24(2), 141–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Butler, J. (2013). For white girls only? Postfeminism and the politics of inclusion. Feminist Formations, 25(1), 35–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cohen, B. (2016, August 3). How Ibtihaj Muhammad made it to the Olympics; The American fencer has taken an even more improbable path to Rio than you might think. The Wall Street Journal.Google Scholar
  14. Dosekun, S. (2015). For western girls only? Post-feminism as transnational culture. Feminist Media Studies, 15(6), 960–975.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fahy, C. (2016, August 8). Team USA missed opportunity to take political stand against xenophobia. U-Wire. University of California, Los Angeles, CA.Google Scholar
  16. Francombe, J. (2010). “I cheer, you cheer, we cheer”: Physical technologies and the normalized body. Television and New Media, 11(5), 350–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gasper, C. L. (2016, August 5). A point to prove. The Boston Globe.Google Scholar
  18. Gill, R., & Scharff, C. (Eds.). (2011). New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  19. Haberman, M., & Oppel, R. A. (2016, July 30). Donald Trump criticizes Muslim family of slain US soldier. New York Times.Google Scholar
  20. Hargreaves, J. (2000). Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Harris, A. (2004). Future Girl. Young Women in the Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Hayhurst, L. M. C. (2013). Girls as the “new” agents of social change? Exploring the “girl effect” through sport, gender and development programs in Uganda. Sociological Research Online, 18(2), 8–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hayhurst, L. M. C., Chawansky, M., & Kay, T. (2016). Beyond Sport for Development and Peace. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  24. Hutcheson, J., Domke, D., Billeaudeuax, A., & Garland, P. (2004). US national identity, political elites, and a patriotic press following September 11. Political Communication, 21(1), 27–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Johnson, J. (2016, July 24). Donald Trump is expanding his Muslim ban, not rolling it back. Washington Post.Google Scholar
  26. Johnson, J., & Hauslohner, A. (2017, May 20). “I think Islam hates us”: A timeline of Trump’s comments about Islam and Muslims. Washington Post.Google Scholar
  27. Lewis, B. (2016, August 19). Queens’ Muhammad hurdles competition. New York Post.Google Scholar
  28. Macke, M. (2016, August 26). A new Muslim superhero. U-Wire.Google Scholar
  29. Maese, R. (2016, August 8). A fencing mask hid her hijab. Now this US Olympian wants to be heard—And seen. The Washington Post.Google Scholar
  30. Maese, R., & Svrluga, B. (2016, August 19). Clement follows his plan—And then so does Muhammad. The Washington Post.Google Scholar
  31. Martin, J. (2016, August 4). Muslim fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad set to make US Olympic history in Rio. CNN Wire.Google Scholar
  32. McRobbie, A. (2009). The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  33. Perse, E. M., & Lambe, J. (2016). Media Effects and Society (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  34. Pfister, G. (2010). Outsiders? Muslim women and Olympic games—Barriers and opportunities. International Journal of History of Sport, 27(16–18), 2925–2957.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rendell, E. (2016, August 21). USA shows off its wonderfully diverse athletes at Olympics. The Philadelphia Daily News.Google Scholar
  36. Richmond, K. (2016, August 14). Muslim-American medalist: The America I love is inclusive. CNN Wire.Google Scholar
  37. Rose, N. (1992). Governing the enterprising self. In P. Morris & P. Heelas (Eds.), The Values of the Enterprise Culture: The Moral Debate (pp. 141–164). Routledge: London.Google Scholar
  38. Samie, S. F. (2013). Hetero-sexy self/body work and basketball: Invisible sporting women of Pakistani Muslim heritage. Journal of South Asian Popular Culture, 11(3), 257–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Samie, S. F. (2017). De/Colonizing “sporting Muslim women”: Post-colonial feminist reflections on the dominant portrayal of sporting Muslim women in academic research, public forums and mediated representations. In A. Ratna & S. F. Samie (Eds.), Race, Gender and Sport: The Politics of Ethnic “Other” Girls and Women (pp. 35–62). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  40. Samie, S. F., & Sehlikoglu, S. (2015). Strange, incompetent and out-of-place: Media, Muslim sportswomen and London 2012. Feminist Media Studies, 15(3), 363–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Scharff, C. (2011). Disarticulating feminism: Individualization, neoliberalism and the othering of “Muslim women”. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 18(2), 119–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Stodolska, M., & Livengood, J. S. (2006). The influence of religion on the leisure behavior of immigrant Muslims in the United States. Journal of Leisure Research, 38(3), 293–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sultan, A. (2016, August 28). Gold medal performances off the field. St Louis Post-Dispatch.Google Scholar
  44. Tasker, Y., & Negra, D. (Eds.). (2007). Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Thul, C. M., LaVoi, N. M., Hazelwood, T. F., et al. (2016). A right to the gym: Physical activity experiences of East African immigrant girls. In M. A. Messner & M. Musto (Eds.), Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds (pp. 165–178). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Toffoletti, K. (2016). Analyzing media representations of sportswomen—Expanding the conceptual boundaries using a postfeminist sensibility. Sociology of Sport Journal, 33(3), 199–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Toffoletti, K., & Palmer, C. (2017). New approaches for studies of Muslim women and sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 52(2), 146–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.RichmondUSA
  2. 2.School of Humanities and Social SciencesDeakin UniversityVICAustralia

Personalised recommendations