For the last two years, I have been the assistant coach of the women's Wildcats basketball team at Northwestern University in Qatar. The players are Arab, many are Muslim and most have never participated in organized sports.
But let's make no mistake. They may be girls. They may be Arab. They may even be Muslim. But they go hard. It's no secret that Middle Eastern women are often slow to progress in certain arenas. That Qatar and Saudi Arabia are, for the first time, sending women to the London games is not insignificant. So when talking about Arab women playing basketball, it is tempting for us to see their participation as novel, a glimmer of hope for which their very freedom is at stake. However, when the Wildcats are out on the court, they aren't thinking about being trailblazers, they are thinking about the game.
A young Arab Muslim woman living in the Gulf can get a thrill from a clutch defensive rebound late in the fourth quarter, or get amped up by a sick layup off the transition, and it actually has nothing to do with her being an Arab Muslim woman. It does, however, have everything to do with her being an athlete. That her thrill of victory or agony of defeat would feel any different from a male American athlete is absurd.
When it comes to minorities and women in traditionally male dominated sports, let's not risk turning every story into white man's burden. I'm not going to feed you the line: "I didn't save the oppressed Arab women of Qatar, they saved me." I'm here, in fact, to call a spade a spade. When one of our students takes the court, her race, religion, gender and social status are peripheral. She is there to hear the crisp, satisfying sound of the leather ball hitting the stiff rope nets when her jump shot lands. She is there to push herself through one more miserable suicide drill even when she thinks she cannot make it. She is there because Georgetown University in Qatar is our rival and she will be damned if they make it to this year's tournament without a fight. When the coaching staff gives pep talks before the game, we don't pat ourselves on the back for grooming a generation of young women. Our singular ambition is to make sure they take no prisoners.
This is not to say there are not benefits to people playing sports, and sometimes women playing sports. According to a recent study by economist Betsey Stevenson: "82 percent of businesswomen played sports after elementary school. While one in six women call themselves athletic, nearly half of women making over $75,000 do. Girls' increased sports participation explained about 20 percent of the increase in education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women." Statistic upon statistic prove that participation in athletics enhances leadership, team building skills, discipline, and has numerous health benefits. That in struggling communities these benefits are all the more impactful is unquestionable.
This is also not to deny the social impact of sports for women and minorities. Jesse Owens' performance at the 1936 summer games: a message to the warring world. Jackie Robinson's signature on a Brooklyn Dodger's contract in 1947: the ushering in of a new era. Tommie Smith and John Carlos' raised fists at the 1968 Olympics: a call to action. Billy Jean King's Battle of the Sexes in 1973: more than just a game. Katie Hnida's two points in a Division I-A football in 2003: the kick heard round the country. And the list goes on.
But this is not about those subtle revolutions. It's that Jesse, Jackie, Tommie, John, Billy Jean and Katie were driven to success in spite of who they were, not because of it. So to with our girls, and by our girls, I mean our players.