“I want to show the world that Muslim women can wrestle”
After qualifying to represent the US at the Pan-American Wrestling Championships in Mexico this summer, Muslim wrestler Latifah McBryde was asked to make a choice. Either she competes wearing a singlet – the one-piece, tight-fitting, wrestling uniform – in accordance with United World Wrestling (UWW) guidelines, or she forfeits her spot on the team and her right to compete.
McBryde, a 17 year-old African-American from Buffalo, New York, wrestles wearing a hijab in adherence with her religious beliefs.
“I was very disappointed, but I had expected some backlash,” McBryde tells us. “I have put in a lot of time and dedication into this sport. An opportunity of this magnitude is huge, and for it to be snatched from under my feet hurts.”
“I would love to be able to show the world that Muslim women can wrestle, be modest, adhere to our religion and be good wrestlers too. We need to break free from the idea that we have to be practically naked to participate in sports, whether it be wrestling, volleyball, swimming or gymnastics. This is also a great opportunity to grow women’s wrestling tremendously. There is a ridiculous amount of hidden talent in the Muslim community and among the general population who don’t feel comfortable dressing in a singlet.”
McBryde wears spandex leggings and a long spandex sleeve shirt with a hood over her wrestling singlet, that she alters to fit like a sports hijab. On top of that, she also has a moisture-wicking short sleeved shirt and pocketless, below-the-knee shorts secured with elastic. This gives her a clear disadvantage when she fights, as opponents can grab onto her clothes. But she doesn’t complain, she says, as she chooses to dress this way.
“To understand our uniform, you have to understand what our religious beliefs are,” she explains. “As Muslim women we have to cover our bodies to protect ourselves and our beauty, which is only to be seen by those we choose to show it to. When we wrestle, we have to abide by these guidelines.”
“Wrestling is everything to me”
Wrestling is more than just a sport for McBryde. “It’s everything to me. It’s one of the only things I look forward to when I wake up.
“I also never liked team sports because of how much you have to rely on other people to do their part on the field. Wrestling is a martial art that is based purely on performance, not race or religion – and I love that responsibility and pressure, if you don’t put in the work then it shows. No one cares what god I believe in, how I am dressed or the colour of my skin when I am competing.”
McBryde started wrestling when she was five years old. She comes from a family of wrestlers: her dad wrestled in high school and in college. When her older brother started to wrestle too, McBryde and her sisters would play on the mats, and eventually started practising themselves.
She only started to wrestle competitively four years ago. “We never thought we could compete in our uniform. Thanks to USA Wrestling, we were given permission to compete in their tournaments. We have wrestled in a few local competitions and in Canada, and never had a problem.”
Muslim women in sports
More than ten thousand people so far have signed an online petition to support McBryde and urge the United World Wrestling (UWW) to let her compete in clothing that respects her religious beliefs. One of them is Asma Elbadawi, a British-Sudanese basketball athlete and activist, who successfully campaigned to convince the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) to remove its ban on religious head coverings on the court.
“I think it’s important that sports federations regularly review and update their rules to keep their sports more inclusive and diverse,” she comments. “It’s disappointing to see yet another campaign by a female Muslim athlete like Latifah having to prove why her faith and participating in sport are equally important to her. Especially since research has already proven that the correct sports hijab doesn’t inflict any harm on the athlete wearing it, or any of the other athletes taking part in the sport, and are now produced by most sport brands.”
Malaysia’s Nor ‘Phoenix’ Diana made the headlines in 2019 when she became the world’s first hijab-wearing champion pro-wrestler. Like wrestling, pro-wrestling is a competition of strength, but it combines athletics with theatrical performance for entertainment.
“The thought of having to choose between our passion and our faith is downright ridiculous,” she tells us. “It is important to have representation in every sport possible because some of our sisters out there might need to see someone who looks like them, to light the fire and be inspired to take the first step.”
Nor used to wear a wrestling mask during the first few years she was competing in public. She recounts how she felt when she revealed her hijab for the first time: “When I unmasked, I felt relieved: like there was no longer a burden on my shoulders. The reaction of pro-wrestling fans and the live audience was amazing. They were supportive, and some cried with emotion when I did. But later on, after I went viral, the online outrage was there too.”
One of the biggest challenges Nor has faced, as a Muslim pro-wrestler, is public perceptions. “While there are plenty of supporters from all around the world and all walks of life, there are equally as many people who are against me and my passion, and some of them can be downright hurtful and nasty.” She finds her strength in her drive to become successful worldwide.
Her message to Latifah Mcbryde: “Keep doing what you are doing and pursue your passion, because you never know which little girl you might inspire – not only in your own sport, but in many other fields as well.”
You can sign the petition to support Latifah here
Featured image: Latifah McBryde. Photo by Aj Grieves/MatFocus. 2022