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Saudi women emerging from behind the veil
The orthodox Muslim kingdom has began allowing its girls in private schools to participate in sports. It is still has a long way to go, but at least it is a beginning towards long-awaited gender equality.
Under international pressure, Saudi Arabia for the first time included two female athletes in its team to last year's London Olympics. Though the teen-aged girls, track athlete Sarah Attar (19) and judo player Wojdan Ali Shaherkhan (16) didn't win any medals, they'll remember the encouraging cheers for the rest of their lives. Sarah was a lap behind the rest on the track, but she had a cheer all to herself from the crowd. Wojdan, a novice at this level of judo, also helped make a point for Saudi women in the 82 seconds she lasted in her bout against a Puerto Rican opponent. Now, there's more good news.
The ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom will let girls in private schools take part in sports and physical education. The measure appears to have left out the majority of girl students in state-run schools, but now that a beginning has been made, hopefully it will not be long before the winds of change reach millions more of Muslim women, not only in the Gulf but also elsewhere. In fact, the welcome winds already have started gaining strength, with Saudi Arabia soon likely to throw its football stadiums open to women fans of the world's most popular sport. The country will be host to the Asian Cup in 2019, and the rules of the Asian Football Confederation require women not be kept out of the stadiums.
Many had seen the change coming when an unknown Saudi Arabian girl, Dalma Malhas, won a show-jumping bronze medal in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010, with president Jacques Rogge of the International Olympic Committee exclaiming that Ms Malhas' achievement made the IOC "absolutely happy. " The girl was not an official Saudi Arabian entry. She had entered the Singapore Games at her own expense.
The Olympic charter states that "the practice of sport is a human right" and that any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on ground of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement. To be part of it, a country should include women athletes in its Olympic contingents. Not only Saudi Arabia, Brunei also sent women athletes to London for the first time.
As for this matter of the shariah dress code which requires women to be covered up, the views of the orthodox are being increasingly accommodated. The international weightlifting federation decided to alter their rules to allow Muslim athletes to compete in the London Olympics with their arms and legs covered, with Khadeja Mohammad, 17, of the United Arab Emirates being the first to do so. Even FIFA, the world soccer federation, has changed its dress rules so that Muslim women may play with their heads covered in hijabs. In fact, innovative fashion designers are applying their minds to create playing kits to meet the religious requirements of orthodox Muslim women.
Come to think of it, there were cases of Muslim women athletes winning Olympic gold medals a few decades ago without wearing a hijab or covering their arms and legs. The most celebrated of these great athletes is Nawal el Moutwakil, who won the gold medal in the 400 metres hurdles the first time the event was introduced for women in the 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles. Our own PT Usha missed the bronze medal by a hundredth of a second in the famous race. Nawal ran in the Moroccan colours of green singlet and red shorts. No one in the packed Los Angeles Coliseum cared what kind of dress she wore or which religion she belonged to. All that they cared for was how well she ran and how smoothly she sailed over the hurdles. Inducted to the Hall of Fame years later, she now heads IOC's coordinating committee for the 2016 Olympic Games to be held in Rio de Janeiro.
In the 1990s there was middle-distance runner Hassiba Boulmerka, who won the 1500 metres in the 1991 World Championships before picking up the gold medal in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. An Algerian Muslim, Boulmerka too ran in sleeveless vest and shorts like any other woman. Like El Moutwakil, Boulmerka went on play her part in IOC's affairs. To revive recent memory, there were a couple of Muslim Kazakh women, namely Maiya Maneza and Zulfiya Chinshanio, who won weightlifting gold medals without drawing any notice to the dress they wore on the stage in london.
Away from the Olympic arenas, Muslim women have emerged in games like soccer, Fatima Bajramaj being a star midfielder in German women's league. Sania Mirza, leading player in Indian women's tennis, has met with disapproval from Muslim clergy of the country, but that has not stopped her from making a name for herself in the sport of her choice.
With Saudi Arabia changing its rigid stand, there is hope that more and more girls from the Islamic world will be seen on the playing fields and physical education classes. The Saudi kingdom has a special place in the Islamic world.
This writer knows of a girl who leaves home for school all covered up, but takes off her burqa once she is there, attending classes like all other girls. After school and sports, she covers herself up again on nearing her village home. A time will come when she may no longer have to do so. Literate enough to read newspapers in her school library, she must now be inspiringly aware that a certain Raha Muharrak created history on May 17, 2013 when she became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to climb Mount Everest, the ultimate achievement for any mountain climber. "I don't care about being the first so long as it inspires someone to be the second, " said the 25-year-old from Jeddah. Convincing Ms Muharrak's family to let her climb was as a great a challenge as the mountain itself. Now they are fully supportive.
In fact, a second Muslim female has already repeated Raha's feat, though she may not belong to Saudi Arabia. All Pakistan was thrilled when Samina Baig, 21, from the village of Shimshal in the Karakoram Range, reached the world's highest peak with her brother Mirza Ali, 29. She remarked that together they had promoted gender equality.
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