There is no denying it has been a monumental year for women in sports. Just this month, after a series of phenomenal performances, tennis star Serena Williams was named Sports Illustrated‘s 2015 “Sportsperson of the Year.” The U.S. women’s soccer team took a stand against being forced to play on turf, which they claim is a sexist practice, after their monumental World Cup win. And despite her heartbreaking loss in November, UFC champ Ronda Rousey threw enough punches this year to put her name, and women’s mixed martial arts as a whole, on the map.
But in many places around the world, women and girls struggle just to make it onto the court or into the ring. In Iran, for example, women are still banned from watching sports in stadiums. In Saudi Arabia, girls aren’t allowed to play sports in public schools. Even teams dedicated to women are sometimes dominated by men, as in the case of this soccer team in Iran, on which 8 of the players were found to be male.
For those who are able to play, participation in sports has proven to be life-changing for women and girls. Aside from improving physical health, sports boost self-esteem and build leadership skills. For young girls in poor and marginalized communities, sports can offer an alternative to early marriage and childbirth. Being part of a team can also provide access to community support networks, like those that provide reproductive care and HIV prevention services.
That’s why we’re excited to look back on 2015 and spotlight some of the female athletes whose stories haven’t made as many headlines as Venus or Serena, but are remarkable no less. Against the odds (and often, against the rules), these women and girls have excelled in sports they’re passionate about, and inspired others to do the same.
In a small oceanside town in Bangladesh, where girls are often pushed into child labor and early marriage at the expense of their education, a group of bold young girls has taken to the water to surf. The group of girls had been working as street vendors, but began taking surfing and lifeguarding lessons with local Rashed Alam and his wife Vanessa Rude. Despite pushback from the community, they quickly proved that they could rip it like the boys. “They’re skating, they’re learning, they’re life-saving, and they’re surfing,” said Rude of the girls. “And so, the goal is for their families to see that difference in their daughters, and the attention they’re getting. And that they’ll start letting their daughters be more free to choose what they want. They deserve better.”
Part of the first-ever official training program in Pakistan to teach women how to box, The First Women Boxing Coaching Camp is a beacon of hope for girls in a Karachi neighborhood. The club started when 16-year-old Khadijah asked local boxing champion Nadir Kachi to teach her. As more girls expressed a desire to learn to box, the club grew. “Boys have two arms and legs and so do girls,” said Kachi, “So why wouldn’t these girls fight just like boys?”
26-year-old Behnaz Shafiei is breaking barriers in Iran, a notoriously conservative country where women are banned from riding motorcycles in public. She’s one of six women who has helped make huge legal strides for women motorcyclists in Iran, working hard to receive official identifications that allow them to race on amateur tracks. “My goal is to be a pioneer, to inspire other women,” Shafiei said in the AP interview. “Together, we can convince authorities to recognize women’s motorcycle racing.”
— Jamie Wilson (@wilsonjamie) October 5, 2015
In Nepal, a young woman who grew up in poverty, and was recruited into a Maoist guerrilla army in her teens is making big strides in one of the world’s most extreme sports: running mountain races of 50-100km (31-62 miles). Mira Rai started racing last year, and was able to complete the races without any formal training. She was also the only female participant. Since then, she’s competed all around the world, earned enough money to put her siblings through school and help her family rise from poverty. “I want women and girls in remote villages like mine to have opportunities. We need to change attitudes. It will not be easy,” Rai told The Guardian.
Physical disabilities can pose major barriers for aspiring women athletes. In the United States, one teenage girl was able to switch to an adaptive version of her favorite sport, fencing, and has quickly risen to the top of the game. At just 16 years old, Lauryn Deluca is ranked the number one women’s wheelchair fencer in the United States. Born with with moderate cerebral palsy, Deluca was once an able-bodied fencer, but made the difficult transition to a wheelchair at age 14. Lauryn now preparing herself for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Growing up with a disability, I was insecure about it,” she said. “Being in the wheelchair, I embraced that, yes, I am disabled.”
A groundbreaking new video gaming team has been organized in Hong Kong. The seven women in “Girl HK” are making an impression in Japan’s male-dominated pro-gaming world. The women specialize in League of Legends, a hugely popular online battle game that takes years to master on a professional level. Through competing in international gaming competitions, they’ve amassed a growing following of fans, and are slowly but steadily climbing in rank. Though the e-gaming scene is exploding in popularity in Japan, League of Legends isn’t popular with many women. “[It] probably attracts fewer girls because it’s not that cute and there’s lots of killing,” team captain Fafa Yim told the South China Morning Post.
Afghanistan remains a turbulent place to grow up for many girls. But emerging from violence and conflict, many women and girls are breaking into male-dominated areas of society, striving for freedom of expression and greater representation. In her recent project Kabul Women, photographer Delphine Renou focused on a new generation of Afghan women working to contribute meaningfully to Afghanistan’s future. From female rappers to cab drivers to the young boxer pictured above, Kabul Women is a powerful testament to the strength of women in Afghanistan.
In Palestine, a team of women known as the “Speed Sisters” are conquering the male-dominated sport of racing. This year, a new film followed the women as they faced the many difficulties of racing in Palestine, from security issues, to male racers. Team captain Marah Zahalka and her teammates Noor Dauod, Mona Ali, Marah Zahalka, and Betty Saadeh are united by their love of racing, and have found support in their communities, but are still challenged by the violence that has shaped the region they call home. “Kids are throwing stones and soldiers are throwing bullets,” Maysoon says in the film as she drives towards a traffic checkpoint.
Up until a ruling this year, Indian internationally competitive sprinter Dutee Chand was barred from competing against female athletes due to the “hyperandrogenism” she suffers from, which causes her body to produce high levels of testosterone. Chand, rather than accept the status quo, brought her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, which ruled in her favor. Thanks to the landmark ruling, she and all other athletes with the same condition will be allowed to compete. The case has generated new conversations about the ways gender is treated in the world of sports.
— Hopscotch (@hopscotch) May 30, 2015
A surprising photo series created by artist Hassan Hajjaj depicts the colorful world of female biker culture in Morocco. The images in Hajjaj’s Kesh Angels feature outfits he designed himself, and spotlight the vibrant personalities of the women he photographed. Hajjaj also created a feature-length film that focused on one of the women, a henna artist named Karima. Karima: A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this year. “Because of the old medina, everyone really needs a bike to move around in Marrakesh. You have women wearing traditional clothes on them, women in modern clothes on them, even kids and old men and women,” Hajjaj told Quartz.
Badminton player Saina Nehwal is one example of Indian women athletes excelling on the international stage. Aside from being the first and only Olympic medal winner in badminton for India, she has also spoken out about the lack of encouragement for young female athletes in India, and this year joined forces with Microsoft’s #MakeItHappen campaign, motivating Indian youth to follow their dreams. “Changes are happening and girls continue to outperform and excel in life, but there is still a long way to go when it comes to sports. Women are traditionally not encouraged to indulge in sports,” Nehwal said.
The athletes Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal were misidentified in an earlier version of this article.