Better than Beckham in Iran

By Elisabeth Braw, Metro World News
Honey Thaljieh loves watching international football from her home in Bethlehem. Soon Thaljieh herself might play on global television: she’s the founder of Palestine’s new national women’s team.
“In the beginning it was very difficult”, recalls Thaljieh, 26, who also founded the West Bank’s first female football team seven years ago. “People said it wasn’t a game for women. Some said it wasn’t feminine, and others thought men would look at us in our t-shirts.” Today, Palestine has no less than 16 female outdoor teams and 10 indoor teams.
Bedre end Beckham i Iran
Photo by Honey Thaljieh
Welcome to the Revolution. “During the past 5-10 years, we’ve witnessed success stories in the Muslim world”, explains Sertaç Sehlikoglu, a Turkish PhD student in Social Anthropolicy at Cambridge University who runs the blog Muslimwomeninsports. “Love of sport seems to be female athletes’ primary motivation. They also want to gain physical strength and become fit. Many of them are interested in sports for self-defense purposes, which they hope will provide them a higher self-esteem.” 
Today nine Middle Eastern countries, including the UAE, Qatar and Iran, have women’s football or futsal (indoor football) leagues.  “People used to think that football was a strange European thing”, says Farrah Sheikh, a 19-year-old who plays in Dubai’s women’s league. “I had to get special permission to play football in school. Now people are getting used to us playing, though at my university the women’s team is only allowed to play indoors, while the men have two outdoor fields.” Last year Bahrain hosted the world’s first Women's Football Cup Arabia.
“Football is quite popular among Middle Eastern women”, notes Sehlikoglu. “So are martial arts, swimming and track & field.” In 2006 Bahrain’s Roqaya Al-Gassra, who competes fully covered, won the 200 meter race at the Asian Games. And Iran’s Sara Khoshjamal Fekri won bronze in taekwondo at last year’s Asian Games. 
Honey Thaljieh sets her aim on the 2016 Olympics. “Of course we’re not as good as the other Arab countries, because we don’t have good facilities to practice in”, she says. “I want to improve women’s chances of doing sports in Palestine.” But she has another goal, too: “People think of us Palestinians as terrorists. I want to show them that we’re peaceful and well-educated.”

Macho Mideast women
This spring Turkey’s Nurcan Taylan won three gold medals at the European Weightlifting Championships. Turkey, which along with Iran boots the most female athletes, has a “bootcamp” for young female wrestlers. Bahrain and Palestine, too, actively promote female sports, though women point out that male athletes still receive more money. “There were over fifty females athletes from the Middle East in the last Paralympics in China Beijing”, notes Sertaç Sehlikoglu. “We can certainly expect more women from the Middle East in the 2012 Olympics. Especially since the female athletes’ success in the South Asian Games last year, several Middle Eastern countries have realized that women’s success is valuable for their country.”
..and now for the headscarves
Iran’s football association is on the warpath with FIFA, which bans female players from wearing headscarves. Other women wearing hijabs have indeed been banned from competing in international events. (The Middle East’s top female athlete, Ghada Shouaa, is Christian.) But women’s success has created a new market: athletic gear for Muslim women. Montreal designer Elham Seyed Javad has created a “sports jihab”, while another company sells body-covering gear for competitive female swimmers. The United Arab Emirates even features an ‘Aspire4Sport’ conference about athletic clothing for Muslim women. 
Analysis: Ghada Shouaa, heptathlete, Syria’s only Olympic champion (Atlanta 1996)

I left school at 16 and moved to Damascus with the goal of becoming a top athlete. Of course I’m happy that Arab women see me as a role model, but to get top athletes we need a big effort, starting with sports academies for young athletes. But Arab countries don’t have the patience to wait for 10-12 years until their efforts bear fruit.
Arab women have been good at martial arts for a long time, but their new football enthusiasm has been a surprise to me. Of course, to get really good, we need a bigger effort there, too. Men laugh at women’s team. Instead they should support them.
I’m proud that I was the first Arab woman to win an Olympic gold, but the Arab world hasn’t utilized this victory. That makes me sad. People say “oh yes, we’re proud”, but they don’t use it to build up sports in their countries.
Of course I hope women’s sports will take off in the Arab world, but sometimes I doubt it. Arabic sports media, like al-Jazeera Sports, use European men, not Arab women, to comment on women’s sports. If it remains like that, women’s sports won’t have a future in the Middle East. But as a woman, I’ll fight for it!
Available in: