Indeed, it’s not as though women’s teams of Muslim-majority countries don’t compete in regular tournaments or that they always follow the dress codes prescribed by the orthodox maulvis. The Pakistani women’s teams in different sports are a good case in point in this regard, since their attires are no different from those of the female sports teams of countries where Muslims are not in majority (though a petition had been made to the High Court of the Pakistani province of Sindh to the effect that women’s cricket and hockey matches were repugnant to Islam, but it was dismissed). Also, the 2012 Women’s Squash World Cup was won by Egypt, another Muslim-majority country, and Malaysia, yet another Muslim-majority country, secured the third place. Also in this list of accomplished Muslim women is ten-year-old Alzain Tareq from Bahrain, who in 2015 became the youngest ever competitor at the world swimming championship in Kazan, Russia. Nor is sport for women something new to Islamic history per se, as is clear from the references to Razia Sultan and Nur Jahan in the Indian context in this book, for example.
There are also Muslim women like Behnaz Shafiei, who has been defying all laws of state and religion by riding her motorcycle on the streets of Iran, a country that prohibits women riders altogether (though it allows women to drive cars, unlike Saudi Arabia). But she is not the only one fighting for the rights of women to ride two-wheelers, groups of females in Dubai and Egypt, called Women of Harley Dubai Chapter and Girls Go Wheels have also taken this fight to the streets by getting together and asserting their freedom for riding. Their attempts are aimed not only at their own liberation, but that of many future generations so that women are encouraged to follow their paths without any worries about societal constraints.
An interesting development that can be examined in the context of clothing is that of the Iranian women’s football team being disallowed by FIFA to play an Olympic qualifier against in 2011 because of the dress code not conforming to FIFA regulations. It is noteworthy that Jordan too is an Islamic state which happens to be located in the Middle East but their players’ dress code wasn’t found objectionable, reiterating that making sweeping generalizations about women’s sports in the very diverse Islamic world would also not be appropriate.
The Kazakh player Zarina Diyas is another example. In 2015, she held Sharapova for a long while before giving away eventually. But the most important aspect of this is the way in which her mother encouraged her to play tennis. She accompanies her to the grounds and cheers for her too. Kazakhstan is a Muslim-majority country and there has been no resistance to Zarina playing her game the way she wants to.
Having said that, we may turn our attention to Saudi Arabia, a country the regime of which is the most conservative and oppressive towards women, other than Taliban/ISIS-like militias. Here, the issue is not only one of clothing. It is a country where girls are banned from sports in state schools (though it’s not so in private schools) and powerful clerics castigate women for exercising and female gyms must adhere to strict regulations, parading as health centres than as venues of sports.
The stance of the official Supreme Council of Religious Scholars is represented by Sheikh Abdullah al-Maneea, who said in 2009 that the excessive “movement and jumping” needed in football and basketball might cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. Newspaper articles refer to such women as “shameless” when they play sports and are a cause of great embarrassment for the women and their families. Some women have even received text messages advising them to stay at home and tend to their household duties as mothers and wives. In 2010, Sheikh Abdulkareem al-Khudair, who also sits on the Supreme Council for Religious Scholars, renewed a religious edict banning sports for women, which he said “will lead to following in the footsteps of the devil”!
However, it would be unfair to not give the other side of the picture in the very same country. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a nephew of the late King Abdullah, who is known to be a supporter of women's rights, has included women in his Kingdom Equestrian Team, part of his company Kingdom Holding, which has allowed Saudi women to compete in international competitions since 2007. There are liberal Saudi men who consider the women participating in sports to be pioneers and encourage the women to play regardless of the obstacles. Saudi women have formed teams, like the basketball team Jeddah United, and a group of Saudi women led by Princess Reema al-Saud also organized a hiking expedition to Everest base camp this summer as part of a charity fundraising exercise to promote a healthy lifestyle for breast cancer patients. While Human Rights Watch had slammed Saudi Arabia for not sending a single female athlete in the Olympics, the National Olympic Committee of Saudi Arabia has indicated to Human Rights Watch that it may send female sportspersons from hereafter, and in 2012, the International Olympic Committee made it compulsory for every participating country to send a women’s contingent, leading Saudi Arabia to send two girls in its contingent to compete in judo and the 800 m. run, fulfilling the indication it had made to Human Rights Watch.
If we look at other countries in the Arab region, there have been some very positive examples which give hope to future generations of women sportspersons. One of them is Kuwaiti Line umpire, Aseel Shaheen, who in July 2015 became the first From Palestine, a woman is making history in the sporting world. Noor Daoud, who was the first Palestinian woman in history to compete in an international motorsport event in 2013, taking part in drift racing, one of the most dangerous disciplines in motorsports. Daood is not alone in this gender defying movement in Palestine; she is in fact part of a group of Palestinian women racers, coming from different cities and socio-economic backgrounds, who have become role models for speed enthusiasts of West Bank under their collective identity of Speed Sisters, which is also the title of a feature length documentary made on them by Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares. With a lot of creativity and makeshift logistics, these women maintain their passion for racing amidst shortage of funds, societal and religious naysayers and border tensions in Ramallah.
As for the Taliban (be it the Afghan one or the Pakistani one) and its attitude towards women, the less said the better. Though it no longer holds its sway over most of Afghanistan, a new Taliban (different from its Afghan counterpart but ideologically similar) has emerged in Pakistan. Maria Toor, an ace female squash player from Pakistan who has made a mark on the international stage doing her country proud, actually chopped her hair to disguise her female identity while playing with boys in a Taliban-infested region, and her father actually shifted the family from there to Peshawar for the sake of his daughter’s sports career, a testimony to his gender-sensitized outlook.
The Islami Jamaat-e-Talba (IJT) and the Punjab Students’ Association (PSA) clashed in Karachi in October, 2015 clashed over what seems to be the issue of boys and girls playing cricket together. The IJT and PSA students engaged in a fight that injured both male and female members of the PSA. The IJT claimed that the fight was part of propaganda of the PSA to malign the IJT. The claim of the PSA is, however that the IJT had warned the female players to not play cricket in the Karachi University campus.
In the capital city of Kabul, a group of Afghan women are pioneering a revival of sports for women in a country that is still reeling from the after effects of being ruled by Taliban for years. From being virtually banned from public life and denied many basic human rights under the Taliban regime, the members of Afghanistan’s National Cycling team is trying to peddle forward in the right direction while tackling many roadblocks like family pressure and patchy public support.
Thus, despite the challenges, sporty Muslim girls are racing along, fighting the obstacles. More power to them!