In the western world women don’t think twice about taking up sport and aiming to compete at the highest level. Indeed their exploits are celebrated and many female sports stars become icons and national heroines. In a world where obesity and heart disease are big issues we are all constantly encouraged to get fit and participate in sports but for women in some parts of the world, not only would this be frowned upon, it is actually illegal.
The build-up to the London Olympics did see the historic announcement by Saudi Arabia that they would be allowing woman to compete in the games for the first time. This was a remarkable step forward for a nation where girls are banned from participating in sport at school and woman’s organised sport is illegal. Only two women were ultimately included in the team and both of these were forced to conduct their training outside of Saudi Arabia where traditionalists will not accept the participation of woman and condemn athletes as a disgrace to their culture. The Saudis are not alone as in 2008, Afghani track and field athlete Mehboba Ahdyar was forced to seek asylum prior to the Beijing Olympics as she was receiving death threats at home.
Female athletes have been starting to emerge from Arab countries despite the challenges and resistance they face. London 2012 also saw female athletes from Qatar and Brunei compete for the first time and in Beijing the UAE and Oman made history by including woman in their teams. Some predominantly Muslim nations are now showing a good level of female representation in their international teams but these are North African nations like Egypt and Algeria.
Things remain tough for woman in the Middle Eastern Arab states where female sport is often not even shown on television and any sporting endeavours pursued by woman are behind closed doors. There is, therefore, little inspiration and no icons to drive women forward. Despite these obstacles some brave women do continue to train and involve themselves in sport for their personal benefit and to inspire others.
It is unlikely that conservative attitudes in Arabian countries will be able to stem the tide of female sport for much longer, especially as female stars from the region are starting to emerge onto the international stage. Take the case of Shaikha Latifa Al Maktoum. She may have had the advantage of being the niece of the monarch of Dubai but this star of international show jumping has worked hard and gained her success on merit.
Admittedly things are a little more relaxed in the UAE regarding female sport but the sight of a woman in a show jacket and jodhpurs may be a little too much for some conservatives at the moment, let alone the idea of scantily clad female athletes on the track. Things are slowly moving forward and the seeds were sown some years ago.
In the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria won Olympic gold in the 1500 metres and unlike the Saudi track athlete, Sarah Attar, at London 2012, she was not clothed from head to toe. Times are changing and in the future it is entirely possible that the Arab states will deliver a new generation of female athletes to the world stage.
When female sport does finally emerge fully in the Arab world it will be to the credit of the brave woman who been defying convention and criticism to pursue their dreams.
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Sally S writes for a number of blogs and websites on everything ranging from finance to music.