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According to the International Olympic Committee, nearly 150 female athletes from 18 predominantly Muslim countries participated in the 2008 Beijing Games, a fivefold increase from the 1988 Seoul Games. Future World Cup host Qatar sent zero women to Beijing; the country sent 64 women to last year’s Asian Games, up from eight women in 2002. Prominent Saudis - including King Abdullah’s daughter - have spoken out in favor of female athletic participation. In August, an 18-year old female Saudi equestrian rider won a show jumping bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, never mind a lack of formal government support.
Such is the fits-and-starts nature of progress: In Iran, women are not permitted to attend soccer games played by men. Yet when a senior cleric denounced Iranian women winning 14 medals - one of them gold - at last year’s Asian Games, noted human rights paragon President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly expressed his support and a desire to win more gold medals next time.
“We’re changing the mindset,” said United Arab Emirates women’s soccer committee chair Hafsa al-Ulama, who accompanied the team in Washington. “When I was young and our country was new, the older girls were not finishing school. They were not allowed. Now, almost all finish school and go to university also.
“I loved sports in school. But I didn’t get to play soccer. Even 10 years ago, there were not these opportunities.”
Flash-forward to 2004, when a half-dozen young women began meeting to play soccer at a sports club in Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital city. They caught the attention of the club’s owner, who provided a small training budget and encouraged other girls to participate.
Still, the United Arab Emirates job was unique. Her new charges had only scrimmaged in 7-on-7 games, never with full 11-woman sides. None of the players had competed outside of the country. All were either in school or working full-time jobs, making simple matters like practice time difficult to schedule.
Moreover, cultural differences abounded. While most players were content to wear standard-issue shorts and T-shirts, some wanted to wear traditional Muslim headscarves, called hijabs. Others didn’t want to play in front of male spectators. A few players quit because their families disapproved of women playing sports. Others simply kept their participation a secret.
Nayla Ibrahim, a 25-year-old police officer and goalkeeper, reportedly left the team for a month because her parents were bombarded with complaints from friends and relatives - and then rejoined the squad because not playing left her depressed.
“It’s a little more difficult because of the culture,” Ms. Selby said. “But there’s ways around that if we do it the diplomatic way.”
According to Ms. al-Ulama, diplomacy means meeting traditional culture halfway. To wit: Although international soccer governing body FIFA prohibits headscarves for making a political statement, the United Arab Emirates team allows modesty-minded Muslim players to wear hijabs, leg stockings and long-sleeve T-shirts. Likewise, closed-door scrimmages are held for players uncomfortable appearing before men, and team officials address skeptical parents with a positive, consistent message: Soccer isn’t harmful. Girls enjoy playing. It makes them fit and healthy.
Today, a nascent United Arab Emirates women’s soccer academy in Abu Dhabi has more than 40 participants, many of them teenagers.
“Their parents said go ahead, travel thousands of miles all the way to the States. And that is amazing, a major shift,” Ms. al-Ulama said. “When you change, you have resistance. We knew that. We took it very slowly. The philosophy we use is just, ‘Bring your girls. Let them play.’ “
Reinforcing the message are United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his wife, Princess Haya, both of whom support women’s sports and are equestrian enthusiasts. Similarly, Sheik Mohammed’s daughter, Sheika Maitha, competes in taekwondo and carried her nation’s flag at the Beijing Games.
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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