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Ida Lichter, M.D.

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Hurdles to Muslim Women's Rights

Posted: 07/12/2012 10:14 am

An injured horse last month disqualified equestrian Dalma Malhas from representing Saudi Arabia at the London Olympics. She would have been the first female athlete from the kingdom.

Brunei and Qatar have entered several women for the first time, and although most Muslim countries send female athletes to various events, few boast outstanding women contestants. Why are they lagging so far behind the rest of the world and does the Arab Spring herald any change?

In May, the Muslim Women's Sport Foundation in London honoured a number of athletes, including Halet Ambel, the first Muslim woman Olympic competitor, who represented Turkey in 1936; African American Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will fence for the U.S. this year wearing the hijab; and Sadaf Rahimi, a 17-year-old boxer from Afghanistan. The Kabul stadium where Rahimi trained for the London Olympics was a former Taliban site for women's executions.

Other outstanding sportswomen include Pakistani Naseem Hameed, who won a gold medal in the 100m track event at the South Asian Games in 2010, and Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel, who won gold at the 1984 Olympics and later became minister of sports.

Since 1993, the Islamic Federation of Women's Sport has held female-only, multi-sport, Women's Islamic Games every four years, adhering to Islamic dress code and hosted by Iran. In ancient Greece, women also held their own games every four years, as women were excluded from the Olympics.

International perspectives on Muslim women's sport are invariably influenced by Islamist states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran and their economic clout.

Religious opinions vary, and in Saudi Arabia they range from an obligation to keep fit and healthy to accusations of immorality, destruction of virginity and subversive Western corruption.

Reformer Halima al-Muzaffar has noted the large number of Saudi women who suffer from obesity or osteoporosis. Exercise would be beneficial, but the government closed many ladies' gyms in 2009 and 2010, claiming they were unlicensed. New applications were refused.

The few private women's soccer teams compete clandestinely, and women are barred from sporting events in stadiums.

To be fair, King Abdullah has embarked on reform, reducing the power of the mutaween or religious police and promising voting rights for women in the 2015 municipal elections.

As in the case of lifting the driving ban, granting women freedom to pursue sports could unravel the sexual segregation, full body cover and male guardianship of women demanded by the religious autocracy that legitimises the monarch's rule. Women might leave the house without their husband's permission or spend time in mixed company.

Dress codes have proved contentious in soccer. The International Federation of Association Football banned the hijab in 2007 because of the danger of choking and this led to the exclusion of the Iranian women's soccer team from the London Olympics. The ban was reversed after introduction of a Velcro fastener and was recently ratified.

Anita Defrantz, U.S. member of the International Olympic Committee, has denied claims of discrimination against women who wear the hijab, but in order to remain true to its values, the IOC should observe religious neutrality in athletic dress code. They could also suspend Saudi Arabia and Iran for discrimination, sanctions they applied against South Africa between 1964 and 1992, and Afghanistan under the Taliban at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

The Arab Spring has borne bitter fruit, as the ascendant Muslim Brotherhood advance an Islamist agenda that may spell oppression for women. Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egypt's ousted president, organised the Womathon for Peace event to promote women's health and cultural diversity through sport, but her initiative is probably buried in the dustbin of odious association.

Muslim sportswomen already have a forum for piety at their own Games, and international sporting organisations should, at least, resist bending their own rules to accommodate Islamist countries that legislate against women's rights. The real hurdles are entrenched, archaic traditions authorised by religion and legislated in state politics.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.

 

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