DOHA: Three weeks before the Arab Games in Doha, Qatari sports officials called Nada Mohammed Wafa to tell her she would be competing in the Middle East’s biggest sporting event.
Surprised – and a bit scared – the 17-year-old swimmer replied: “Oh wow! Sure!”
Wafa, who had only competed in school-level events until then, trained hard to make up for the short time she had before making history by becoming the first woman on Qatar’s national swim team.
“It’s a good feeling, but it’s also very lonely,” Wafa said. “It’s just me, myself and I.”
Wafa may be Qatar’s lone female swimmer, but she is part of a group of emerging athletes in the conservative Muslim country that hopes to send women to the Olympics for the first time in London next year.
And if Wafa’s phone rings in five months or somebody confirms her name is on the list, she would be delighted to go and compete.
“I’d be over the moon,” Wafa said.
Along with Saudi Arabia and Brunei, Qatar has never sent female athletes to the Olympics. Last year, the International Olympic Committee urged the three countries to end the practice of sending all-male teams to the games, hoping that naming and shaming would do more for female athletes than banning their nations from the Olympics.
While Saudi Arabia’s plans to send women to the London Games remain wrapped in secrecy, Qatar is feverishly working to escape the stigma that comes with failing to include women.
Over the past decade, the tiny but rich Gulf country has been targeting sports as a vehicle to showcase its global aspirations. Last year, it became the first Arab country to win the right to host the World Cup in 2022. And Qatar’s bid for the 2020 Olympics adds the pressure to include women on the teams in London.
Qatar Olympic Committee president Sheik Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said female athletes have been competing in international tournaments for the past three years, including last year’s Youth Olympics in Singapore.
The only reason women were not included for the 2008 Beijing Games is because they didn’t qualify in any sport, Sheik Saoud said. He added that Qatar is talking to the IOC about sending female athletes to the games next year on wild-card invitations.
“That’s the thing with the Olympics. They can’t go if they don’t qualify,” Sheik Saoud said. “It’s not about us being unwilling to send women to the tournament. But it takes time to prepare athletes to compete on the international level.”
It also takes time to change mindsets in a deeply conservative society. Qatar follows the Wahhabi branch of Islam, a strict version that predominates in Saudi Arabia.
There are no written laws in Qatar – or Saudi Arabia – that ban and restrict women from participating in sports. Rather, the stigma of female athletes is rooted in conservative traditions and religious views that hold giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sins.
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where women are still banned from driving, much has changed in Qatar since the country began an ambitious process of opening up to the world, largely through hosting high-profile sporting events in tennis, soccer, and track and field.
But getting women to compete in Qatar is quite a different thing than sending then to compete abroad.
“It’s unusual in this culture,” said Hana al-Badr, a 20-year-old handball player who has seen the change since she joined Qatar’s first female handball team four years ago. “My teachers and my friends in school use to look at me and say, ‘You are a girl and you are traveling to play outside? How can your family let you?’ But now it’s become normal.”
Wafa, the swimmer, didn’t win any medals at the Arab Games but succeeded in improving her times.
She beat her best in the 50-meter breast stroke by 3 seconds and missed the finals by a second. She also improved her time in the 50 freestyle by a second, beat her personal best in the 100 breast stroke by 15 seconds and was happy with her time of 1 minute, 10 seconds in the 100 freestyle.
“It was amazing experience,” Wafa said. “I had so little time to train, but I finished seconds away from champions. I am so happy with my results.”
Qatar has invested heavily in women’s sports over the past decade, introducing special programs for girls in school and organizing training camps at home and abroad for female athletes with talent and ambition to compete on the international level.
In the past three years, al-Badr and her teammates played in three international tournaments, including last year’s Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, where 90 Qatari women competed in a half-dozen disciplines.
Qatar also started a six-team women’s soccer league last year and hosted a Gulf basketball tournament. The shining moment for Qatar’s female athletes came at last year’s inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, where two qualified to compete.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” said Lolwah al-Marri, the general secretary of Qatar’s Olympic committee who is charged with developing sports for women. “When we started, families were concerned for the girls’ safety and were afraid people would start talking badly about their daughters.”
The focus 10 years ago was on building women’s team sports, but by December 2011, when Doha was hosting the Arab Games, 40 percent of the Qatari delegation were women, competing in volleyball and basketball and eight individual sports, including gymnastics and swimming.
“The dress code is a big problem in these sports,” al-Marri said.
There are signs, however, that the times when families in the desert nation of 1.6 million kept their women confined to the home are receding into the past.
“It’s not an issue, the dress,” said Shaden Wahdan, a 16-year-old gymnast.
One of the costumes she wore at the Youth Olympics will one day be on display at an Olympic Museum that Qatar plans to open, Wahdan said. She is the first woman to have competed for Qatar in an Olympic event last year.
“I don’t really care what people think. I want to compete and win medals,” Wahdan said during this month’s Arab Games, the region’s biggest multi-sports event.
And win medals she did: two golds, one on the floor and another in the beam. She also was awarded two silver medals and a bronze, a tally that definitely boosted her chances of going to the London Games.
“It would be such a great experience,” Wahdan said.
Saudi Arabia’s 18-year-old equestrian athlete, Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was the first woman to compete internationally for the ultra-conservative kingdom. She won a bronze medal at the Singapore Youth Olympics.
Sticking to tradition, Saudi Arabia sent an all-male team to the Arab Games, but local media have reported that Riyadh might send Malhas to the London Games to avoid criticism.
Women’s rights organizations – and some IOC members – say Saudi Arabia should be banned from the Olympics for excluding women.
“Dalma is being used as a token woman they want to send to London to avoid being banned,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs that has been behind the “No Women No Play” campaign that advocates the Saudi Olympic ban.
Qatari sports officials say it is unfair to lump their nation with Saudi Arabia. Many credit Sheika Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, Qatar’s first lady and a campaigner for women’s empowerment, for successfully conveying the message to society that sports can be good for girls.
“Going to the games is not an issue in Qatar. Changing mindsets is,” said Noora al-Mannai, the CEO of Doha’s 2020 Olympic bid, adding that Doha will in the next three years open a high-performance training center for female athletes from all over the region.
“It’s happening,” al-Ma
nnai said, “but changes take time and I am sure that by the time Olympics come to Doha, there will be many female athletes who qualify to compete.”