By Rhodri Davies
Doha, Qatar - After training, swimmer Nada Arkaji dries off inside the multi-million dollar Aspire aquatics centre. With thousands of coloured spectator seats, it's a big facility for a small nation. And Arkaji has a confidence which matches her surroundings.
"I always try my best in swimming," she told Al Jazeera. "I always try to get my personal best. So I think that I have all the potential to reach the top."
| Qatar's Aspire sports academy helps train the|
next generation of athletes from the Gulf [EPA]
Perhaps she has reason to. She has been selected by Qatar to be one of the first three women to represent the country at an Olympic Games.
In addition to Arkaji, a sprinter and a shooter have each been given wild-card entries for the London event, which begins on July 27.
"I was overjoyed," said 17-year-old Arkaji. "Words can't explain how excited and happy and honoured and proud I was to represent my country. I'm just very proud."
Brunei and Saudi Arabia are the only other nations never to have sent a female athlete to the Olympics. They have said they will do so in London, although this has yet to be confirmed.
"It means a lot, especially to other girls. Because I'm the first Olympic swimmer, maybe that would encourage other girls as well, especially my age - or even younger - to have more opportunities to take up any sport," said Arkaji, who will compete in the 50 metres freestyle in London.
The selection has already changed her life. Her training has been ramped up to twice a day, and for longer periods. And she has been receiving plenty of media attention.
The Gulf emirate only established a national Women's Sports Committee in 2001.
Its conservative culture and strict form of Wahhabi Islam have meant that women and girls wearing tight sports clothes and having the freedom to travel to events have been limited.
And because only about 14 per cent of the country's 1.9 million people are citizens, Qatar has a small pool of athletes to develop and choose from.
Not that it's not trying to encourage female athletes. Qatar's Olympic Committee told Al Jazeera it had wanted to send female athletes to the last Olympic Games in Beijing, but none qualified. It also said it aimed to empower women through sports.
Mohamed al Fadala, the executive director of the Olympic Committee's Schools Programme, said the committee has been promoting women in sports for the past decade through schools and clubs, and with families.
"It takes time to change," he said. "But the message this year is 'Sport and Family'. This is the message we're putting in the media, for all sports.
"It doesn't matter the religion, the culture. When she has the sporting foundation, she is coming."
The committee has also poured money into building elite facilities for both men and women, as Qatar wants to become a regional sporting hub.
|Doha's Khalifa Sports City features an international|
stadium and aquatics centre [EPA]
It hosted the 2006 Asian Games and 2011 Arab Games, where it entered 100 female athletes. That was also Arkaji's first international competition.
Qatar will be the venue for the football World Cup in 2022. While Qatar's bid to host the 2020 Olympics was rejected last week, bid CEO Noora al Mannai immediately said the nation would re-apply for the 2024 games. For Doha, the Olympics were always "a question of when, not if", said al Mannai.
But for that to happen, the nation will likely have to improve its gender disparity in sports and elsewhere - not only on the grand stages, but also at a grassroots level.
A national women's basketball league was started this year, and a football league kicked off in 2011.
But men and women are still segregated in much of public life.
Qatar's national university has two campuses, separated by gender. The female campus houses minimal sports facilities compared with the swimming and athletics stadium complexes of their male peers.
Authorities are sensitive to such an image. When interviewed by Al Jazeera, Arkaji said she could not answer questions about cultural restrictions she faced to play sport as a youngster.
In other fields, women here have made significant advances in the past decade and make up almost 70 per cent of university graduates.
But in the workplace, they are still limited to particular sectors - education, healthcare and clerical work - and few are in leadership roles - in sport or otherwise.
|"Females gained a lot in the last ten years - more than the 50 or 60 years beforehand. But they have to work hard, and they are working hard - harder than men."|
- Dr Moza al Malki
Labour laws prohibit women from undertaking dangerous or arduous work. They are also banned from employment deemed "detrimental to their health or morals".
Some women - as in other Arab nations - are pushing for a female quota in the partially elected parliament.
Dr Moza al Malki, a Qatari writer and marriage and family psychologist, welcomed Olympic participation, but said it was an achievement that must be built upon.
"Our society is conservative," she said. "But I think the open-minded people think it is very positive. Females are not doing anything against religion or morals.
"Females gained a lot in the last ten years - more than the 50 or 60 years beforehand. But they have to work hard, and they are working hard - harder than men."
Amid the rapid expansion of Qatar's highest global per capita income, it is easy to overlook the fact that there has been significant change in an area whose people lived as nomadic tribes about a century ago.
While Emir Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani has brought in many advances, his second, and reportedly most favoured, of his three wives, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, is recognised for initiating women's programmes in education, the workplace and in sport.
But al Malki said there must be attempts to strive for greater equality.
"We look forward to real change in the society. We need fairness in this country. Sometime we feel that some people get more than they deserve and some people get less than they deserve. Unfairness sometimes hurt us."
London will be the first Summer Games where women will compete in all the same sports as men - a landmark for the International Olympic Committee, whose own openness towards female participation has grown. In the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, women made up just 20.7 per cent of the athlete pool, compared with 42.4 per cent in Beijing.
Qatar is still building in sport and across the rest of its society.
But the country has institutional ambition. The nation's Olympic Committee is aiming for improved individual times in London and for a semi-final position for a female team in 2020. The sense of possibility and purpose is imbued in athletes such as Arkaji.
"I'm sure I'm going to be in the 2020 Olympics. I will have a lot of time to train for it, so I will have a better advantage than the Olympics 2012. That's the next goal definitely," she said.
"Hopefully by then there will be more girls participating in sports. Because Qatar provides all the facilities, so we've got all the potential and determination to promote female sports."
As she leaves the pool for another day, Arkaji continues on her rising and unexpected course. And, despite the diminutive stature of both her and her country, the confidence of each will seemingly continue to build - always with an eye on the gold.
Follow Rhodri Davies on Twitter: @rhodrirdavies
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where girls are not offered physical education in state schools and women are essentially barred from participating in most competitive sports, external pressure has prompted the monarchy to allow women to participate in the Olympic Games for the first time.
The Saudi embassy in released a statement Sunday, confirming that the Middle Eastern country would allow women athletes "who can qualify for the Games" to participate in the 2012 Olympics.The decision came as rights organizations called on the International Olympic Committee to pressure Saudi Arabia to shift its policy on participation of women athletes in adherence to the Olympic Charter, which states:
Saudi Arabia will enter women athletes in the Olympics for the first time ever in London this summer, the Islamic kingdom's London embassy said.
Human rights groups had called on the International Olympic Committee to bar Saudi Arabia from competing in London, citing its failure ever to send a woman athlete to a Games and its ban on sports in girls' state schools.
Powerful Muslim clerics in the ultra-conservative state have repeatedly spoken out against the participation of girls and women in sports.
In Saudi Arabia women hold a lower legal status to men, are banned from driving and need a male guardian's permission to work, travel or open a bank account.
Under King Abdullah, however, the government has pushed for them to have better education and work opportunities and allowed them to vote in future municipal elections, the only public polls held in the kingdom.
''The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking forward to its complete participation in the London 2012 Olympic Games through the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which will oversee the participation of women athletes who can qualify for the games,'' said a statement published on the embassy website.
In April the head of the kingdom's General Presidency of Youth Welfare, the body that regulates sports in Saudi Arabia, said it would not prevent women from competing but that they would not have official government endorsement.
The IOC said on Monday that talks with the Saudis were ''ongoing'' and that ''we are working to ensure the participation of Saudi women at the Games in London''.
The head of the kingdom's Olympic mission, Khalid al-Dakheel, told Reuters on Sunday evening however he was unaware of any developments allowing women to participate.
Top Saudi clerics, who hold government positions and have always constituted an important support base for the ruling al-Saud royal family, have spoken against female participation in sports.
In 2009 a senior cleric said girls risked losing their virginity by tearing their hymens if they took part in energetic sport.
Perhaps the most likely woman candidate to compete under the Saudi flag in London, equestrian Dalma Malhas, represented the kingdom at the junior Olympics in Singapore in 2010, but without official support or recognition.
Physical education is banned in girls' state schools in the kingdom, but Saudi Arabia's only female deputy minister, Noura al-Fayez, has written to Human Rights Watch saying there is a plan to introduce it.
A professional golfer from Wales has been recognised for her role as a successful Muslim woman in sport.
Sahra Hassan, 24, has been named UK sportswoman of the year by the Muslim Women's Sport Foundation at Wembley Stadium.
The night honoured female role models from the Muslim community who have made sport more accessible.
Hassan, from Newport, south Wales, said: "I didn't expect to win, I hadn't even prepared a speech."
Hassan was presented with her award by FA chairman David Bernstein at the ceremony on Wednesday.
She said: "I thanked the Muslim Sport Foundation for giving me the award and to everyone who voted for me."
Hassan turned pro three years' ago and in her first year on the European Ladies Tour.
"I used to play tennis and then at 13 I took a break and started playing golf because my dad played - and I've never looked back.
"I played amateur golf for six years at a high level and I was good enough to try pro so I took a gamble," she added.Break America
So far this year Hassan has been to China, Toronto and travelled across Europe. Next week she will jet off to Turkey before another five-week stint in Europe.
"In the next year I want to try and win one or at least come top five," she said.
And she is certainly putting in the training. Hassan plays three times a week; practices every day and works out at a Cardiff gym every day with her trainer.
She is currently ranked 30th in the world and hopes to break America.
"I'll see how I go in Europe but I want to base myself in America and join the LPGA tour," she said.
Jordan Women's National Football Team players Reema Ramoniah and Stephanie Al Naber, accepted the Muslim Women's Sport Foundation's ‘Special Recognition’ Award on behalf of HRH Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, FIFA Vice President representing Asia.
The Award recognizes Prince Ali’s contribution toward advancing Muslim women’s sport.
The Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation’s event, held at Wembley Stadium and supported by the Football Association, recognized global efforts by sports leaders and athletes to increase Muslim woman's participation in sports worldwide.
“I would like to thank the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation for this award. I am truly humbled by this special recognition," Prince Ali said in remarks delivered by Ramounei and Naber.
"It is with your support as believers in and advocates of the right of all women to participate in the sport they love, that we were able to reach a positive outcome at IFAB where all members approved the proposal to allow women football players to wear a headscarf on the pitch. We are waiting for the final ratification in July, which I am confident, we will achieve, especially given the available safe and tested designs,” he added.
In closing, Prince Ali dedicated this award to “the players, particularly, women players worldwide for their dedication to this beautiful game.”
Both Ramoniah and Naber played a leading role in the "Let Us Play Football" campaign earlier this year. The campaign, which garnered more than 65,000 supporters on Facebook, represented the players’ perspective on the headscarf in football urging decision-makers to lift the ban.
A referee on Sunday refused to officiate a French women's football match, when players for one of the teams took the pitch wearing Muslim headscarves, the club involved said.
The official sent a report to the Languedoc-Roussillon league in the south of the country about the incident involving players from Petit-Bard Montpellier, who had been due to play Narbonne in the regional promotion tie.
The league must now decide whether to order the match to be replayed or to award a win to Narbonne.
The two teams played a friendly match instead, with Narbonne winning 7-6.
Football's world governing body FIFA banned players from wearing the Islamic headscarf in 2007, claiming it is unsafe.
But football federations and even the United Nations have urged FIFA to lift the ban, maintaining that concerns about safety are baseless and that it discriminates against Muslim players, particularly when no such restrictions apply in other sports.
Iran's women's team last year forfeited a 2012 Olympic qualifier because players wouldn't play without wearing hijabs.
Photo: Phil Moore/IRIN Going for gold: Female runners at Mogadishu's shelled-out Konis Stadium
MOGADISHU, 17 April 2012 (IRIN) - The Somali Athletics Federation will select one female runner from a field of 10 to compete in the 400-metres at this year's London Olympics. The youngest of those currently training in Mogadishu is Najma, 10. She started running six months ago, shortly after Al-Shabab left the city. “My father encouraged me,” said Najma.
She knows she is lucky - most girls in Somalia do not enjoy such freedom. The head coach of the Athletics Federation, Ahmed Ali Abikar, said it is very difficult for female athletes in Mogadishu to train. "Society doesn't understand about sport for girls. They cannot train everywhere, they are teased. But they know why they're doing it," he said.
Najma and Leila, 15, meet every Saturday to race around the 400m track at the bullet-ridden Konis Stadium in downtown Mogadishu, a city which until August 2011 was occupied by Al-Shabab insurgents. Leila, a slight and self-possessed young woman with a bright red scarf covering her hair and glittering gold earrings, remembers a time when she had to conceal her tracksuit beneath a burka until she was in a secure compound where it was safe to run. "The stadiums were closed because of the fighting", she said.
Leila has been training for three years and says she has always been interested in sport - something which both the mayor of Mogadishu and the prime minister of Somalia regularly express their desire to promote. She says girls in Mogadishu can now choose from basketball, handball and athletics. "When I'm running, I'm happy. It gives me real pleasure", she said.
Determined girls like Leila are staking their claim to freedom and choice.
Nick Birnback, spokesperson for the UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS), agrees that change is in the air. Following the decision to grant women 30 percent representation in parliament, he said many had sought advice from UNPOS to understand their rights and request support. “They're willing to be really engaged in the political process knowing that the context of Mogadishu is a very hard environment,” he said.
At a February conference in Garowe, the administrative capital of Puntland, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) convened the second in a string of UNPOS-facilitated meetings to work towards the completion of, and transition to, a new constitution by 20 August 2012. Currently women have 12 percent representation in government, but it was agreed that in the new federal parliament of Somalia they will have at least 30 percent.
“Historic” Women’s Day celebrations
The head of the Somali Women's Federation, Asha Omar, is another determined character. She was responsible for organizing Women's Day celebrations in Mogadishu this year. Omar returned to Somalia two years ago after 21 years in Sweden. “We are the peace-lords, we're working hard,” she said. “It's the men who left their work - they're just fighting between themselves. Everyone wants to be a president. I tell them, be a president in your own home."
Omar says decades of male migration and drought have promoted women to non-traditional roles; many now are at the head of their families. "Women have no tribes, they have families", she explained, adding that Somali women lose their ties to the clan structure on marriage.
However, on women running for parliamentary office, Omar warned that because the clan structure has no tradition of female leadership, it will be a case of the men choosing for them, perpetuating inequality.
|Photo: Phil Moore/IRIN|
|"We are the peace-lords, we're working hard|
Abdi Hosh, TFG minister for constitution, described this year's Women's Day celebrations as historic. "It was the first such event I ever observed in Somalia; it was the first such event held at the venue in 21 years, as it was being used by IDPs [internally displaced persons], and it was significant for me because I fought for 30 percent membership for women in the next parliament," he said.
The city centre was awash with the vibrant colours of ceremonial outfits, hand-painted signs and flags, with many wearing matching turquoise and white dresses in the print of the Somali flag. "We are wearing the same dresses to show we are organized", said Hawa, a 22-year-old from Mogadishu, at the celebrations.
A long way to go
But a source at the Ministry for Information described the move towards 30 percent representation in parliament as a “gesture”. He called for action: economic empowerment such as loans for women, mandatory education for girls, a legal framework to promote equal rights and “a sensible reinterpretation” of social, traditional and religious norms.
Many of the women entering politics in Mogadishu now are either from the diaspora, or have spent time in Nairobi - like Omar.
While some women are returning to Somalia, many are still moving away. Ahmed Ali Abikar, the athletics coach, has dealt with the disappointment of promising runners moving abroad to seek better opportunities.
Samia Yusuf Omar, the girl he trained to run for Somalia at the Beijing Olympics, now lives in Ethiopia having made contacts abroad through her training with the Somali team. Mo Farah, one of Britain’s top Olympic hopes whose family fled Mogadishu shortly before the fall of the Said Barre's regime, is perhaps the most high profile example of this.
Osman, a 66-year-old security guard at Konis Stadium, says he has not missed one day of work in the last 21 years, and has bandages covering the bullet wounds on his left arm and right ankle to show for it. He will be watching Somalia's Olympic runners on TV and firmly believes sport for females will continue to win acceptance. "They can't help but play," he said, of the young girls and boys who use the track. "It's good for everyone."
Somalia has been caught up in a devastating 20-year civil war. Al Shabab militants have threatened to carry on their war against the government and the African Union despite having been evicted from much of Mogadishu and losing territory to Kenyan and Ethiopian troops in the south: Two top Somali sports officials were among at least six killed by a suicide bomber in a Mogadishu theatre in early April.
By Karin Friedemann, TMO
The 2012 Olympics promises to be an exciting year for Muslim women athletes as well as anyone and everyone who enjoys debating women’s rights issues. There is controversy, there are lovely ladies, and an observant public. We will probably be hearing a lot more from the media in the coming weeks.
Muslim women athletes are in many ways stuck between a rock and a hard place: between a religious orthodoxy that generally frowns upon young women being seen in the public eye and the West, which frowns upon the covering of women.
The pressure is on, as Human Rights Watch has suggested that if Saudi Arabia will not support the participation of women in the Olympics, the Olympics should not support the participation of Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabian newscaster Reema Abdullah has been chosen as one of the torch-bearers at the 2012 London Games.
The big fuss over Muslim women’s participation in the Olympics invites the question of why more Muslim women do not participate in sports.
Farah Jassat reports in the Guardian, UK: Cultural barriers to participation were recently highlighted in Saudi Arabia, when the country refused to allow Saudi women to compete in the Olympics. The institutional barrier, by contrast, can be seen in International Federation of Association Football ban on women wearing hijab. The Iranian women’s football team could not complete their 2012 Olympic second-round qualifying match against Jordan because they refused to remove their headscarves.
Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation, based in the UK, strongly believes that faith and sport for both genders are entirely compatible and that the culture of sport is an essential part of Islamic history. Since its establishment in 2001 MWSF has been at the forefront of encouraging physical activity amongst women from British ethnic-minority communities. Offering female only athletic sessions has helped to address cultural sensitivities and provide opportunities where more Muslim women feel comfortable in enjoying sport. MWSF even allows mothers to bring their kids along to training sessions.
This leads us to an important point: Participation of women of any age in physical fitness, regardless of religion, is often curtailed by childcare responsibilities. This is most unfortunate, since the only way for women to “reclaim” their bodies after childbirth is through regular physical exercise. American researchers report that the main obstacle to female exercise is sheer exhaustion from raising children and keeping house, in addition to earning income. There is no way for a mother to attend an aerobics class, run a few blocks, or even go into a private room to do some stretches unless at least one family member is willing to step up to take care of the children for some time to support the desire of the mother to get some exercise. Even those families who cite their total dependence on the mother as their reason for her lack of privacy should be aware that she is likely to be around a lot longer if she has access to some free time to work out.
Salma Bi, a cricketer and umpire believes “the main challenge is the support of the family.”
“It is much harder to excel in anything if your loved ones don’t understand why it’s important to you,” notes Jassat.
MWSF’s International Sportswoman of the Year, Ibtihaj Muhammad is an American sabre fencer who has made the last two US World Championship teams and ranked second in the US. She hopes to be the first Muslim woman representing the US in the Olympics in any sport whilst wearing hijab. Although she has said it is “extremely difficult being different in the sports world – be it for religion or race…” she also concludes, “I would never fence if it compromised who I am and my religion – I love that the two work together.”
Another bright shining star hopeful is the Malaysian rifle shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, who will be well into her pregnancy at the time of her Olympic competition. She will be the fourth woman to compete in the Olympics while pregnant. The first was Swedish figure skater Magda Julin in 1920, the second was German skeleton racer Diane Sartor in 2006 and the third was Kristie Moore, a Canadian curler in 2010.
Suryani told Reuters, “I feel I am strong and my husband says ‘as long as you feel like that, energized to do that, it seems like that is your baby talking to you so you go.’” Malaysia’s best shooter will however not be competing in the 50m competition, even though she achieved the qualifying marks. “Yeah, I cannot do a prone position with this big stomach,” she said.
The accomplishments of Muslim women athletes are guaranteed to be a source of inspiration for the wider community, states David Bernstein, President of Level Playing Field and Chair of the Centre for Access to Football in Europe.
The world is watching, regardless of anyone’s opinion on the matter.
The best we can hope for is that our sisters will make us proud with their excellent performances at the 2012 Olympics, because no matter how they rank in their sport, they are showing us what is possible in this decade of history.
By Ollie Williams,BBC Olympic sports reporter
Aya Medany is surprisingly young to be preparing for her third Olympic Games - and considering retirement.
Medany, not yet 24, is a modern pentathlete who made her debut for Egypt at the Athens Olympics in 2004, aged just 15.
Her sport demands that she fence, swim, ride horses, run and shoot. Her beliefs demand that she do it wearing specific clothing.
Medany, the only elite pentathlete to compete wearing a hijab, now thinks she may have to quit because of the conflict between her religion and her sport.
"I might have to choose after London 2012. I might have to leave," she tells BBC Sport after this year's World Championships in Rome, where she finished 12th.
The problem is not the hijab, even though Medany says it puts her at a disadvantage when running.
Swimming is the issue - Medany wants to swim in an outfit which fully covers her body in order to conform with her interpretation of her Muslim faith, which emphasises modesty in dress.
However, the UIPM - modern pentathlon's world governing body - will not let that happen.
Pentathlon takes its cue from Fina, the organisation which runs world swimming. Fina's rules, amended in 2009 after outcry over 'super-fast' full-body swimsuits, state that swimwear for female competitors "shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulder, nor extend below the knee". Hence, Medany has to obey those rules.
That puts her in an awkward position regarding the media back home in Egypt and her public portrayal. But the UIPM told BBC Sport it cannot make exceptions for one athlete, even a woman it acknowledges has single-handedly established pentathlon on the African continent.
Medany's is a complex case. She only took up wearing a hijab following the 2008 Beijing Games, and her relationship with reporters in her home country has been uneasy.
Egypt is a country of few genuine Olympic contenders, but Medany went to Beijing with a real chance of a medal. Come the women's pentathlon, on the last day of the Games, Egypt had just one other medal: a bronze won by Hesham Mesbah in men's judo.
"By the time of Beijing, I had won world junior titles. People in Egypt knew about pentathlon and knew my name," recalls Medany.
"They said, 'OK, for sure she will get a medal. Aya Medany is our last hope.' All the media was on my head, and in Egypt they were all talking about me. 'If she wins, she'll get this and this, she'll be the first woman in Egypt to do that.'"
On the day, Medany could not live up to the hype.
"I don't know what to say, except that there can't be anything worse than Beijing," she says, with a dry laugh.
"The fencing and swimming was OK but the horses [which are assigned randomly to athletes] weren't very good for the riding. Mine knocked too many fences down - he needed strong hands and I was 19 years old, I didn't have strong hands. I finished eighth."
Did the media understand?
"No. The media… I'm sorry," she looks at our microphone and laughs, "the media really don't know what the athletes feel. They don't know my sport. They put everything on the riding being bad, and me needing an improvement in riding. It wasn't really my fault."
Since Beijing, Medany's quest to wear the clothing she wants during her events has helped to appease journalists at home. Medany is again a face of the Olympics in Egypt this year, but two new obstacles have emerged in the intervening years.
The first was the 2011 revolution in Egypt, embodied in vast rallies in the capital's Tahrir Square. Medany watched on TV at home - "my family didn't agree with letting me be there, and I live a 45-minute drive away" - knowing the upheaval had a direct impact on her Olympic hopes.
Modern pentathlon had been due to stage two major events in Egypt that year, including the 2011 World Championships. But demonstrations continued throughout the year, and the venues were duly switched.
Though she knows her fate pales in comparison to wider changes afoot, she lost valuable training time and a vital chance to compete on home soil. Moreover, a government in turmoil had little time to worry about modern pentathletes.
"The sport hasn't got good funding and now we have a lot of problems, especially after the revolution," she says. "We can't even talk, we don't know what to do, although at least until now they have let us travel."
The second demon is injury.
"I have a lot of pain in the joints around my hip. I have a problem with the nerve and the muscles around it," she says. "The muscles are pushing the nerve hard, so I'm having physiotherapy to help me train normally and not feel the pain."
While Medany contemplates walking away from her sport after London 2012, if she cannot keep her injury at bay, she faces limping off the scene before August.
"I don't want to say 'if' about the Olympics. We don't like to say 'if'. This is my situation now, and to solve this problem I have to work on it," she insists.
"There is no if, if, if. Hopefully in London it will be OK."