In this essay, Rochelle Terman considers the role of Muslim women in sports on the global scene, especially in light of the current Olympic Games.
(WLUML Networkers) “Mehboba Ahdyar, a 19-year-old sprinter from Kabul, has been an inspiration and role model to many Muslim women with a passion for sports. As the only woman representing her team from Afghanistan in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Ahdyar was considered by many to be the poster-child for everything the Olympics stood for. Not only did she symbolize the hope and resurgence of a country devastated by war, but her presence was meant to demonstrate a new, post-Taliban gender equality. But just three weeks before the Games, Mehboba Ahdyar fled from an Italian training camp, giving up her dream to compete in Beijing to apply for asylum in Europe. She said she was too scared of reprisals from those disapproving of her sports career, and feared for her life.
With all strides that women, and Muslim women in particular, have made in the sports world in recent years, female athletes from Muslim countries are still vastly underrepresented at the Olympic games and other elite sports competitions.
This is not due to lack of interest. Indeed, sports play an important role in the lives of many women in Muslim countries, from rowing and football in Iran, to sprinting in Bahrain, and basketball in Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, few women are able to take their passion for sports to the elite level due to legal prohibitions, social stigmas, or limited opportunity. For some countries, even watching live competitive sports is forbidden for women.
The number of all-male Olympic teams has decreased sharply in recent years, from 35 in the 1992 Games in Barcelona, to five in Athens in 2004. Still, women’s participation from many Muslim countries is dismal. The United Arab Emirates and Oman are sending their first women to the Games this year, with just one competitor each. Pakistan and Bahrain are both sending only two women. Iran is sending three female athletes in rowing, archery, and tae kwon do-sports deemed acceptable by government authorities for women’s participation.
Brunei and Saudi Arabia will not be sending any women, barring women’s sports for “cultural and religious reasons.” Qatar and Kuwait, while not legally banning women’s sports, are also not sending any women to Beijing.
Even in the absence of legal bans, women competitors from Muslim countries still have to deal with social stigmas surrounding female athletics in their home countries. There is perhaps no better testament to this than Mehboba Ahdyar. Although Ahdyar always ran in a headscarf and wore long tracksuit bottoms, she still received death threats from extremists who found Muslim women’s participation in sports deplorable. Her neighbors even called the police when Ahdyar received visits from Western media earlier this year, telling them she was obviously a prostitute working for foreign clients. Her father, a carpenter, spent time in jail until the issue was cleared up.
Muslim countries that bar women’s participation in all or some sports do so for various reasons, but almost all are based in cultural and religious arguments deeming what is acceptable for women’s bodies.
Saudi Arabia, one of only two countries legally banning women’s participation in the Olympic Games, has drawn heavily criticism for its discriminatory policies against women’s athletics. Three years ago, the Ministry of Education rejected proposals to introduce physical education for girls in the school system. Women cannot join gyms unless they cater specifically for them, which are few and far between. Women are also banned from sports stadiums to cheer on their favorite teams.
Attempts by Islamic scholars to invoke religion as a reason for banning women’s participation in sports are complicated by the fact that many Muslim countries do permit female athletes, with various degrees of restrictions on dress codes and which events are open to women. Indeed, not all Muslim countries lack female participation in competitive athletics. Women from Tunisia, for example, are well represented this year at the Olympic Games, competing in track-and-field, canoeing, fencing, judo, table tennis, tennis, tae kwon do and wrestling. Indonesia has sent 161 men and 68 women to 12 summer Games. Morocco, too, deserves praise for sending 11 women out of their 38-member delegation.
Furthermore, many doubt the religious basis for not allowing women to compete in athletics, pointing to the example of the Prophet Mohammad. In one hadith (saying or tradition) narrated by Abu Dawood, the Prophet runs a race with his wife, Aisha, and lost. Some years later they had a rematch, and the Prophet Mohammad won.
Even some conservative Muslim leaders advocate women’s participation in sports. Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a strong proponent of women’s sports in her home country of Iran. As a result of her efforts, the first Islamic Women’s Olympics were launched in 1993 and have been held in Iran on a regular basis ever since. She also promoted women’s sports leagues and the building of more sports and fitness centers in Iran. Women can still only pursue sports in the absence of men or when wearing hejab (head covering), or other forms of dress deemed to be Muslim.
Women’s prohibition from the sports world applies not only to participation in athletics; even watching sports is considered by some ultra-conservatives to be off-limits for women. In Iran, for instance, women are not allowed to attend football matches held at public stadiums. Although President Ahmadinejad supports the opening of public stadiums to female fans, members of the clergy who support the ban say it violates Islamic law for a woman to look at the body of any male strangers, including football players. Others say women are banned for their protection, arguing that the foul language and rowdy behavior of male fans in the stadiums are inappropriate for a woman’s presence. Finally, the ‘lack of security for women in sports arenas’ is a common excuse for such gender segregation.
This segregation, however, is plagued with contradictions. For instance, even though women can watch football broadcasts on Iranian television, and can often attend men’s basketball or volleyball matches, the football stadium is kept off limits. Furthermore, this ban, which is not codified in any law, includes only Iranian women. Foreign women who travel to Iran to attend matches are allowed to cheer on their team inside the stadium, demonstrating a double standard enforced by Iranian officials. Finally, regardless of their participation during the actual match, women are always present in the rowdy street celebrations that often follow big wins.
Young women in Iran take this issue seriously as an abuse of their rights, and have formed the Women’s Access to Public Stadiums Campaign to advocate a change in policy. The issue has moved beyond sports, which it uses as an entry point to discuss women’s rights and their access and participation in the public sphere.
Indeed, sports have never been immune to politics, and countries may be banned from the Olympic Games due to domestic discrimination. The International Olympic Committee banned South Africa in the 1960s over apartheid policies; the country returned to the event in Barcelona in 1992. But no country has ever been banned for gender discrimination, even if it means women are blocked from any kind of athletic participation, from elite sports to primary physical education to stadium access.
In March 2008, 600 participants of the fourth International Olympic Committee conference on women and sports endorsed the Dead Sea Plan of Action, calling for gender equality in national teams. Unless this Plan of Action is enforced, the spirit of Olympic Games will be tarnished by hypocrisy. Muslim women deserve to participate in sports, whether that means playing soccer games after school, attending their local stadium, or earning a gold medal in their event of choice at the Olympic Games.”
By: Rochelle Terman