December 31, 2015

The Gulf: A New Arena for Muslim Women in Sports

Shaikha al-Nouri, a professional wakeboarder from Kuwait.
by Nida Ahmad

Within the last decade, Gulf countries have emerged as significant players in the international sporting arena. They have elevated their rank globally by hosting sports championships ranging from golf tournaments (Dubai World Championship) to CrossFit Games in Kuwait (Battle of the East). Gulf countries are also seeking economic growth by promoting business through the creation of “sport cities” like Aspire Zone  and Dubai Sport City which are large multi-venue sports complexes that house research facilities, stadiums, and apartments that allow for the hosting of mega events such as the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

As the Gulf advances in the global economy of sports, pressure from the international community regarding women’s access to sports has grown, an issue that is reflective of the broader criticism Gulf countries have faced concerning women’s rights. Small steps are being taken to end discrimination and empower women through policies that will permit them to vote, to run for office, and to gain employment. Gulf women are seizing this opening to compete in the global sports arena.

Promoting Change Through Sports

Participation in sports enables individual development and social change, empowering women by fostering communication and leadership skills. Athletic competition also contributes to the overall well-being of individuals and creates positive cohesion within communities. The impact of sports on individuals and communities is gaining recognition from governments, NGOs, and educators who seek to fund and implement sports for development initiatives.

For these reasons, the inclusion of women in sports offers a critical path to obtaining equal status for Muslim women, a path being paved by athletes such as Shaikha al-Nouri of Kuwait, as much as by political activists such as Tawakul Karman of Yemen, and Habiba al-Hinai of Oman. While a backlash toward Muslim women’s inclusion in sports is continually highlighted in the press, women are finding access by participating in non-traditional sports such as archery, parkour, surfing, and mountaineering.

Click here to watch a clip of professional wakeboarder Shaikha al-Nouri

There are a number of reasons why women are gravitating toward non-traditional activities. Sports like archery, golf, and weightlifting accommodate Islamic dress. For example, Muslim women are able to wear hijab and dress modestly without compromising their ability to perform. Additionally, some non-traditional sports are not as associated with cultural perceptions of gender norms, thus offering a somewhat neutral means of participating in sport.

Gulf States in Global Sports

The 2012 London Olympic Games, known as “the year of the woman” changed the narrative of women and sports: the games had the highest number of women participating across all sporting events.  The games also marked an especially historic moment for the Gulf: Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent female athletes to the Olympics for the first time, adding to a total of 31 female athletes from Gulf countries. Prior to 2012, Saudi Arabia received pressure from the International Olympic Committee, which itself was pressured by the international community, to allow Dalma Malhas, a Saudi female equestrian, to compete. Malhas failed to qualify, but Sarah Attar, an 800 meter runner, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo competitor, both represented Saudi Arabia at the London games.

Since the 2012 Olympics, the region has experienced other accomplishments. Raha Moharrak was the first Saudi woman to summit Mount Everest in 2013, blazing the trail for others to change the perception of what women, and especially Saudi women, are capable of. Mona Shahab is another mountaineer, who along with twelve other Saudi women, led an effort called “A Woman’s Journey: Destination to Mount Everest” to raise awareness about breast cancer through mountaineering.

Qatar has made high-profile investments in global sports. Its bid to elevate its global standing in sports has stimulated a range of initiatives spearheaded by institutions such as Doha Goals and the International Center for Sport Security. Doha Goals is an annual forum that brings together leaders from all aspects of sports (educators, practitioners, government officials and athletes) to discuss how athletic competition can be utilized to promote social cohesion. The International Center for Sport Security brings together decision and policy makers to address safety and security of athletes and stadiums, and sports integrity by combating corruption, doping, and human trafficking. Qatar has secured the bid for the 2022 World Cup, pending further investigation of FIFA officials for bribery. The international community has also raised concerns about rights of migrant workers involved in the construction of Olympic venues.

Trailblazing Gulf Women

Qatar also has a handful of female athletes entering male-dominated sports. One example is Yasmian al-Sharshani, the first female professional golfer from Qatar and sole female member of the Qatari National Golf Team. In 2013, al-Sharshani founded Qatar Golf Ladies (QLS), the first women’s golf center in the Middle East. She has her sights set on representing Qatar in the 2016 Rio Olympic games, where golf will return after being absent for over 112 years.  Another example is Nada Zeidan, the first female race car driver and a professional archer. She did not participate in the 2012 London Olympics but was the torchbearer for her country. Zeidan has combined her athleticism with her background in medicine to empower women to not only participate in sports but also to promote education.

Kuwait has also produced a variety of female athletes. Shaikha al-Nouri, is a competitive wakeboarder—a combination of surfing and water skiing—and the only professional female wakeboarder on her team. Through the support of her family and community she is leading a movement among Kuwaiti youth and women to take up the sport.  Shaikha al-Nouri’s father, an active sports enthusiast and a prominent religious leader in Kuwait, introduced her to the world of water sports. He encountered criticism for allowing his daughter to compete but his authority allowed him to convey a different religious perspective on women’s participation in sports, arguing that Islam encourages women’s sports, citing the example of the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Aisha, who often competed in horseraces.

Another sport that has gained popularity is CrossFit, which incorporates a range of strength and conditioning movements to test the mental and physical capabilities of individuals. In November, Kuwait held its third annual CrossFit games to grow the sport and prepare its athletes for the international CrossFit Championships in the United States. The rise of CrossFit in Kuwait can be correlated with the alarming health issues the country is facing due to low physical activity, including obesity and diabetes.

Oman also has a number of prominent female athletes. Runners Shinoona al-Habsi and Buthaina al-Yaqoobi both competed in previous Olympic games and are aiming to secure a spot in the 2016 Rio Games. In 2008, an initiative called Oman Sail was launched to attract women to sailing, a sport currently dominated by men. Aside from building a cadre of female athletes to represent Oman in the international arena, the initiative aims to re-establish the sailing tradition and build a community that promotes women’s participation in sports.

The narrative of Muslim women in sports has often focused on their low participation rates.  However, one should also examine how women are entering non-traditional sports. Shifting norms informed by deep-rooted cultural and religious customs will not be an easy task, but several women are breaking down these barriers and acting as role models for their communities and for future generations.

Nida Ahmad is an independent scholar based out of Washington, DC with more than eight years of experience developing, managing, and implementing professional, educational, and sports diplomacy programs for the U.S. Department of State. Her research interests include action sports, new media, marginalized populations, and Muslim women. She writes content pertaining to current trends of sports initiatives and provides guidance to local and international stakeholders on implementing sports for development programs.