Emily J. Weinzetl | SUSRIS
For two weeks, the world watched London become the home of some of the greatest record-breaking and awe-inspiring moments in Olympic history as the 2012 Summer Games unfold. Michael Phelps became the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 22 medals earned, and newcomer Gabby Douglas became the first African-American female to win gold in the all-around competition in gymnastics. While these moments were among the memorable snapshots we will take away, many of the significant accomplishments of these Summer games were often last place finishes of female athletes who for the first time were allowed to represent their countries.
The 2012 games marked the first occasion in which all teams participating had both male and female athletes as Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia made the additions of female athletes to their Olympic teams. While these three countries have received great scrutiny and often negative publicity in the past for not allowing women to participate in the Olympics, in 1996, there were 23 other countries that barred women from competing in the games. While some claim that a small handful of women in the Olympics means very little in ending discrimination and inequality of women around the world, the International Olympic Committee has a different opinion, “The IOC has been striving to ensure a greater gender balance at the Olympic Games, and today’s news can be seen as an encouraging evolution,” Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, said in a statement about the participation of Saudi women.
The IOC has long petitioned for the allowance of women in Olympic competition with Saudi Arabia being its greatest challenge, as it was the largest of the remaining countries to bring only male athletes. While the Kingdom’s two athletes Sarah Attar (Track and Field – 800m) and Wojdan Shaherkani (Judo) made history this week by becoming the country’s first female athletes to compete, they are not a representative sample of the Saudi women’s population desiring to participate in sports.
Maysam Mammam is the co-captain of the Green Team, a women’s basketball team in Saudi Arabia. Her dream, as noted in part of the film portion of the Arab Women in Sport exhibit is that one day she and all other Saudi women will be able to play sports openly. Currently, the basketball team is forced to practice in the backyard of another team captain due to restrictions of women publicly participating in sports. While living in a place where women are not even permitted to enter sports clubs, or especially play for them, Mammam still maintains hope. “I don’t think this will last forever. We are pioneers. We will open doors,” said Mammam, quoted in a Guardian UK report.
The worldwide publicity of the Olympics has brought insurmountable attention to the groundbreaking efforts of the women of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei to bring gender equality to the world of sports. They, along with dozens of other Arab women in the Olympic games have received remarkable honors of their own through the skills of French sisters, photographer Brigitte Lacombe and filmmaker Marian. Their exhibit, “Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sports” has exposed the beautiful courage and perseverance of female athletes whose participation in sports is not considered flattering to their expected “feminine” countenances. The French sisters traveled several Arab countries to film and photograph the female athletes in action and learn about their challenges in order that the world would hear their voices. As noted in the Guardian UK article on Arab women in sports:
“There was a sense of frustration among some of the women,” says Brigitte, who travelled with her sister to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Morocco to photograph and film the women. “But what is so remarkable is how they kept their focus. They will do what it takes to be able to participate in sport. I was humbled by their determination, smartness and dignity.”
The exhibit includes the photographs and stories of more than 50 Arab women in sports throughout many countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Comoros, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, and many others. It recently concluded at Sotheby’s in London and will move to QMA Gallery Katara in Doha in Spring 2013.
Today SUSRIS is pleased to provide for your consideration Amy Assad’s article, “Hurdles and Other Obstacles,” a review of the “Hey’Ya” photography exhibit, from The Majalla, as Lacombe’s works reflect on what remains a controversial issue. For photos of the exhibition click here and here.
Hurdles and Other Obstacles
Review: Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sport
Amy Assad | The Majalla
Entering the exhibition Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sport at Sotheby’s in London, I stop by a photograph of Qatari player Amal Mohammed Awad. Hair under a headscarf, she is clutching a basketball—her dark, challenging stare glares out from under a pair of neatly pencilled-in eyebrows.
It is undeniable that the determination required by all successful athletes is intensified for Arab women who, despite some advances, still have more barriers to break than mere sporting records. Amidst the fanfare of this year’s Olympic Opening Ceremony in London, it was proudly announced that this would be the first year in which every participating nation has put forward a female competitor for the Games—a milestone, or perhaps a rather belated step in the right direction.
Most striking about Hey’Ya (Arabic meaning ‘Let’s Go’) —beyond the allure of Brigitte Lacombe’s bold, playful and diverse large-scale photographs of over 50 Arab athletes—was probably the feeling of guilt that lingered afterwards. Surveying the montage of buff, fearless looking sportswomen was awkward and humbling, as I recalled that as a teenage girl at a UK high school, ‘female problems’ and a carefully-forged sick note were from time to time an easy ticket out of the weekly sports lessons.
Conceived by the Qatar Museums Authority, the exhibition came together over seven months during which award-winning French photographer Brigitte Lacombe and her sister, independent documentary filmmaker Marian Lacombe, set up an outdoor studio in the Athletes’ Village at the Arab Games in Doha. With the support of Qatar’s Aspire programme, they also travelled from the Gulf to North Africa with women athletes, ranging from amateurs to Olympians.
Brigitte Lacombe’s portraits sit alongside short films produced by Marian Lacombe, in which a number of the sportswomen discuss their experiences on camera. It provides a discourse on gender, culture, and sport in the Arab world. By introducing some of the taboos and practical issues that Arab women still have to overcome in order to take their place in competitive sport, the exhibition becomes more than merely a celebration of sporting achievement.
Some of the women in the exhibition are veiled and fully clothed, although most are not. As two Qatari gymnasts in leotards admit, “It’s really rare for Qatari girls to be in sport, especially gymnasts, because of what we wear.” The idea that sporting activity contradicts traditional definitions of femininity is one that still tends to stigmatise female competitors in the eyes of some Arab societies. “They ask us why we play, as because we are women it is not feminine. On the contrary, sport gives women a complete sense of femininity,” says Sudanese athlete Fayza Omer Gomaya, in a defiant response that is typical of many of the athletes.
Fatma Abdulrazzeq, who is wheelchair-bound and has only two fingers on each hand, competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics for Bahrain. She describes her attempt to play numerous other sports, before settling on discus throwing due to the limitations of her disability: “All that was left for me was throwing, so I chose it,” she says, stressing her determination “to not let the door of disability close on me…I don’t want any obstacles.”
Some of those in the exhibition, such as Saudi Arabian equestrian eventer Dalma Malhas, were raised in affluent Western societies and may not have faced the some of the challenges of their co-competitors. Others, such as 800m runner Woroud Sawalha (who is competing in the London 2012 Summer Olympics for Palestine), discuss the rudimentary training facilities provided in her country: “I trained myself in the mountains of my village, which were filled with woods and trees.” Hopping up and down in her unfamiliar spiked running shoes, Sawalha admits she hasn’t had the chance to practice in them yet due to the lack of an athletic track in Palestine. “I wish to change society’s views of women playing sport,” she says.
The exhibition provides an uplifting message. Most of these women are—despite all obstacles, and regardless of ability—ultimately defending their right to be free to make independent choices and in doing so they are pushing boundaries and providing inspiration for future generations. Among those featured in the films is Moroccan hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel, who in 1984 became the first woman from a Muslim country to win an Olympic gold medal. As she says, “Those 54 seconds totally changed the lives of millions of girls around the world.”
Maysam Mammam, co-captain of Jeddah Green basketball team, describes her own vision for the future of Arab women in sport while her team practice behind her in a small private courtyard, the only sport spaces available to women in Saudi Arabia. “It will open doors for us…When I walk in the street (in Saudi Arabia) I see women’s club for basketball.” She adds, “We are working on a different angle for one dream, and for one goal.”
Amy Assad is a Syrian-English London based writer, specializing in the Arts and Culture of the Middle East. She received her BA in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies from Leeds University, and has lived and studied in Morocco.
About The Majalla
THE MAJALLA offers an array of articles addressing the most important issues facing the Middle East and the world today. From political analysis of developing stories, to debates between world class intellectuals, and interviews of leading political figures, our magazine is dedicated to providing the public with informative analyses of the current events shaping the global order. [Source: The Majalla.com]
- Arab Women in Sport: ‘There will be no more barriers for us’ – Guardian UK – Jul 27, 2012
- Second Saudi Woman to Compete is Cheered in the 800 – NYT – August 8, 2012
- Olympics: Female Runner Makes History for Brunei – Times of India – August 3, 2012
- Qatar Female Sprinter Noor Al-Malki Ends Olympic Debut in Injury – BBC Sports – August 3, 2012
- Saudis Split on Female Olympians, Hijab – JP – SUSRIS – August 2, 2012
- London Olympics 2012: Year of the Arab Woman Athlete – PM – July 27, 2012
- A Series of Historic Firsts: Muslim Women in the Olympics – Washington Post – July 27, 2012
- Saudi Arabia’s First Judo Athlete Negotiating Hijab Use – NYT – SUSRIS – July 27, 2012
- Olympic Profile – Female Athletes of Saudi Arabia – NBC – July 27, 2012
- Olympic Profile – Female Athletes of Qatar – NBC – July 27, 2012
- Olympic Profile – Female Athletes of Brunei Darussalam – NBC – July 27, 2012
- London Olympics Breaks New Ground for Women – Coleman – CNN – July 25, 2012
- Flag Raising at Olympic Village for Saudi Athletes – Saudi Brit – SUSRIS – July 22, 2012