In a series of wide-ranging interviews — with 20 athletes of seven nationalities plus their coaches and families — The Washington Post’s Chuck Culpepper has set out to map the rise of female athletes in the Middle East in the 2010s.
At the London Games in 2012, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei became the last three countries to send female athletes to the Olympics. Sixteen Muslim countries from the Middle East sent 158 women to compete in London, with Egypt sending its largest female contingent — 37 athletes — since 1912. Also present in London were 21 women from Algeria; 18 from Morocco, and Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi — the country’s first female medalist.
Culpepper’s profiles include 26-year-old UAE weightlifter Amna Al Haddad — who became a “fitness junkie” seven years ago in an effort to manage her depression. “I’m an angry person normally,” she said. “For some reason the sport really calmed me down.”
Al Haddad concedes she faces many obstacles, however. She finds herself feeling alienated from her peers, and wonders if her commitment to sport will present a challenge to finding a husband. Conforming to a conservative Muslim view of “modest dress” while competing also tends to attract anonymous online critics. “It is not something that is looked positively upon for some,” she said.
Writing in French daily Liberation on July 6, a group of leading French feminists appealed to the International Olympic Committee to exclude Saudi Arabia and Iran from the Rio Games — a punishment for those nations’ limited inclusion of women from sporting events and participation. “In Rio their delegations will undoubtedly include some alibi athletes covered from head to foot in the Islamic uniform imposed on the women so that their bodies are invisible to the eyes of the crowds,” they wrote. “These countries flout the principles and rules written into the Olympic charter and to which they are signatories. The practice of sport is a human right. Each individual must have the possibility to play sport without discrimination of any sort (principles V and VI) and the International Olympic Committee has given itself the mission of promoting male-female equality (Chapter 1.)”
For other women, Al Haddad observes, the disapproval of family is enough to nix their aspirations. “I know there are women who may love sports but may not want to ever pursue it further because they are afraid of what their family will say,” she said. “Because it is ‘shameful for a woman to do this and that,’ blah-blah-blah.”
The UAE team learned in late June that it had qualified for the Olympics after three teams ahead of it failed doping tests. Al Haddad’s teammate Aisha Al Balushi, 24, will represent the team in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Al Haddad has said she was just happy to be part of the process, with her eye on the bigger picture. When asked (often) how much she lifts, she responds: “I lift a nation.”
Read Part 1 in Culpepper’s series on female athletes at The Washington Post.