London Olympics 2012: Year of the Arab Woman Athlete

In the final weeks preceding the Olympic Games in London, Saudi Arabia issued an announcement that made headlines around the globe: Saudi women would be allowed to participate in the games for the first time in the Kingdom’s history.

The international community responded with cautious praise. No one could deny that the ruling could represent a historical shift in policy for women in a conservative Muslim country. But some questioned whether the move was purely intended as an image booster for Saudi Arabia, where physical education continues to be denied to school-aged girls, and women’s participation in organized sports is illegal.

Unfortunately, the lukewarm response does little to advance the image of women’s athletics in Arab countries. Overwhelmingly, the notion remains that Arab and Muslim women do not engage in sports; and sponsored by their countries or not, few women would compete anyways, right?

Wrong. Arab and Muslim countries have been entering women into the Olympics for decades, a fact conveniently forgotten when news like Saudi Arabia’s makes headlines. And they’re not the only new countries to do so. In London, Qatar and Brunei will also be adding women to their national squads for the first time.

Four years ago the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman were the newcomers who added female athletes to their rosters for the 2008 Beijing games. This year one of UAE’s most celebrated athletes is 17-year old Khadija Mohammed, who is the first female weightlifter from the Middle East to qualify outright. She will be joined by Neda Shahsavari, a 25-year old Iranian who hopes to win a medal in table tennis. Algeria will be sending an entire women’s indoor volleyball team which may compete against Turkey’s team, making two out of just twelve national indoor volleyball teams qualify for the Olympics from majority-Muslim countries. Despite the country’s political instability, Egypt will be sending 34 female athletes to London, the largest delegation it has ever sent. Even Palestine has regularly been competing in the Olympics since the Atlanta games in 1996. While they only boast five athletes for the 2012 London Games, two of them are women.

These athletes are as diverse as the sports in which they compete. While they all hail from Islamic or Arab countries, they are all unique in their heritage, religion, language and culture. Yet, their differences aside, many share the distinct pride that comes with the opportunity to represent their countries. Qatari swimmer Nada Arkaji told Al Jazeera, “Words can't explain how excited and happy and honored and proud I was to represent my country. I'm just very proud.” They are grateful, humbled and overwhelmingly driven to prove themselves and their right to compete.

Unfortunately, for some, their home countries are often less than enthused to have them compete. Not all these women celebrated as world-class athletes, but are instead taunted and considered the disgrace of their nations. To overcome high costs, they often train in poor facilities, and without official sponsorship. Both female athletes that will be representing Saudi Arabia train outside the Kingdom’s borders. To compound matters, often women’s sports are not broadcast on national television in more conservative countries, reducing the visibility of these athletes’ achievements. Women’s objectors have gone as far as delivering death threats, the likes of which forced star-Afghani track runner Mehboba Ahdyar to seek asylum before the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

Despite these hurdles, many women continue to train and compete. They speak of the opportunity to encourage other girls to get involved and to further not only women’s sports, but women’s status in their countries. They are relentless trailblazers; already defying odds and expectations, and still working hard to bring a medal home from London.

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Nadira Saleh

Nadira specializes in international food policy and economics and has a fancy degree from Tufts University saying that she's a Master of it. Currently based in Canada, she has previously worked in the US, Kenya, and Burkina Faso in nutrition and maternal and child health. She is an avid sports fan, passionate about nutrition, inner-city health, human rights (especially women's rights) and Canadian politics.

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