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London 2012: The rise of the Muslim female athlete

By Naila Missous

In the final weeks preceding the Olympic Games in London, Saudi Arabia issued an announcement that made headlines around the globe: Saudi women would be allowed to participate in the games for the first time in the Kingdom’s history.

Praising cautiously, the international community could not deny that the ruling could represent a historical shift in policy for women in a conservative Muslim country. But some questioned it, asking whether the move was purely intended as an image booster for Saudi Arabia, where physical education continues to be denied to school-aged girls, and women’s participation in organised sports is illegal.

Unfortunately, the response to all of this was minimal, and does little to advance positive images of women athletes in the Arab world. Overwhelmingly, the notion remains that Arab and Muslim women do not engage in sports; and sponsored by their countries or not, few women would compete anyway, right?

Among the Arab nations, the United Arab Emirates have sent women athletes to participate in weight-lifting and table tennis, respectively. Algeria and Turkey both have women’s indoor volleyball teams, making two of the twelve indoor volleyball teams from Muslim majority nations. Egypt, despite its political instability, have sent thirty-four female athletes, the largest delegation it has ever sent, and it seems, the largest any Muslim nation has sent yet. Even Palestine, with its five-member team, boasts two women athletes.

Some have dubbed the increase and invitation of Arab women in the games as the so-called rise of the Arab female athlete or even, the rise of the Muslim female athlete. But one has to remember that the correlation of female athletes to each nation differs greatly depending on what area of the Middle East of North Africa is being discussed. North African nations such as Tunisia (who boast seventeen female athletes entered), Algeria (who have eighteen female athletes entered) and Morocco (who have sixteen female athletes) have always had a strong female presence on their side; in comparison to Middle Eastern nations such as Qatar (who this year have five female out of the twelve athletes entered for the country) and Saudi Arabia.

One can only wonder though, despite the ongoing challenges, what all these firsts will mean for the generations of young Muslim and Arab girls watching the games: the ones who for the first time will view and hear singing and dancing which may have been reserved previously for family occasions, and see women athletes with names similar to their own. Some wearing hijab just like themselves, and some others without. And may be inspired to achieve more.

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  1. Sam T says:

    On the surface Saudi Arabia sending female athletes is great. But have they sent deliberately sent poor athletes to further undermine women? It could be a step back.

  2. George says:

    I first went to Qatar in 1989 and have regularly gone back. I can honestly say that the rights of women have improved greatly over my time there. However, I do feel for Saudi Arabia. As countries around it thankfully improve their stance on women’s rights, Saudi Arabia is almost going backwards. I do hope that by sending athletes to the games opinions and actions will shift there. Maybe not a Mexico ’68 moment with Tommie Smith and John Carlos but a step forward none the less.

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