- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jalila al-Nuaimi is an appreciative guest. She’s also a striker, same as her on-field idol. So when the United Arab Emirates women’s national soccer team gathered in front of a television during a recent tour of the United States to watch a thrilling World Cup match between the Americans and Brazil, Ms. al-Nuaimi was torn.

Root for her gracious hosts?

Or pull for her longtime hero?

“I’m sorry, but I was with Brazil,” said Ms. al-Nuaimi, a 22-year-old from Dubai.

“[Brazilian striker and five-time FIFA World Player of the Year] Marta is my favorite player,” she explained. “Everyone was cheering ‘USA!’ I was yelling ‘Marrrrtaaaa!’ “

The United Arab Emirates women's soccer team does drills with children from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington. "These girls are pioneers," said Connie Selby, the United Arab Emirates women's coach. (Pratik Shah/The Washington Times)
The United Arab Emirates women’s soccer team does drills with children from ... more >

A laugh. A grin.

“I was the only one,” she said.

As members of one of the first international women’s sports squads from the oil-rich, predominantly Islamic Persian Gulf nation, Ms. al-Nuaimi and her teammates are familiar with standing out. In many ways, they epitomize the state of female athletes across the Middle East: competitive neophytes, cultural trailblazers, navigating both the fields of play and a larger social shift from traditional gender roles to modern, Western-style equality.

“These girls are pioneers,” said Connie Selby, the United Arab Emirates women’s coach and a former Australian national soccer coach and captain. “I was the same thing for Australia. It’s a challenge. But the ball is starting to roll a bit faster.”

Case in point: Last week, Ms. Selbyand her players held a clinic with the D.C. Boys & Girls club at Cardozo High, leading local children through soccer drills and later signing autographs. During a three-week American trip, the 19-member United Arab Emirates squad - ranging in age from 14 to 27 - also trained with the Philadelphia Independence, a professional women’s team, and took part in cultural tourism, including a State Department visit and a stop at the “Rocky” steps in Philadelphia.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, said the tour was both a way for the team to experience first-class soccer and for his nation of 5.1 million to showcase its progress on women’s rights.

“We’re still in the beginning phases of developing it to be a part of the society where it’s normal to go to any public playground and find girls playing soccer,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But we’re trying to set a very high bar, show that there are no limits for women. We’re trying to distinguish the U.A.E. as a little different than the neighborhood.”

Heavily influenced by Islamic fundamentalism and long-standing cultural mores, the surrounding Persian Gulf neighborhood in question has a history of restricting women in both sports and society. Saudi Arabia, for instance, does not allow women to vote or drive. Women’s sports are formally banned; female gyms and recreational athletics are low profile and semiunderground; in state-run schools, physical exercise of any kind for women is prohibited. Two years ago, Saudi race officials even refused to let a female Russian driver compete in an international rally race.

Similarly, a female wrestling club in Iraq disbanded after receiving death threats from religious extremists, and last year the Kuwaiti women’s soccer team was dubbed contrary to “human nature and good customs” by conservative lawmakers after participating in a tournament in Abu Dhabi.

While some Muslim clerics argue that sports will lead women to wear immodest clothes, spend unnecessary time outside of the house, and face lowered odds of landing a husband because running and jumping may - no, really - damage their hymens, change is under way throughout the region.

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