Published on the Huffington UK website (featured on the UK Homepage) on 2nd August 2012
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, 26 countries did not send women and by the 2008 Beijing Games, only three countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei) did not have female Olympians. It is therefore a very important milestone that every Muslim majority country competing at the London 2012 Olympics will now have at least one woman in their team. Even if Muslim women don’t win any medals they are guaranteed to be a source of inspiration for many young Muslim girls across the world wanting to take up sports.
As these Olympics will host the most Muslim women in the games history, I have decided to highlight my favourite Muslim female Olympians from past to present. My list mainly includes women who have made history by being pioneers or have had to overcome substantial obstacles just to compete. I am giving special attention to Muslim sportswomen because they are comparatively small in number. I consider them extraordinary because of the many challenges they have to overcome.
Their biggest hurdle preventing girls from taking up sports is religious extremism, particularly for those living in conservative Muslim countries. Although there is nothing in the Quran forbidding women and girls from exercising and playing sports, religious scholars are making Islam more restrictive than it should be through misinterpretations. They disregard the fact that Islam encourages health and fitness for both men and women. Clerics also conveniently ignore Islamic history, which tells us that female warriors took part in battles. The likelihood is that these women were involved in very physical and demanding activities. Other barriers holding girls back from sports include: lack of funds and training facilities, family, and dress codes. However, girls are now starting to become aware that participating in sports is not against Islam and are slowly getting involved in sports. Some are even choosing to combine their faith with their chosen sport by competing in a headscarf and by wearing modest sportswear.
Before I highlight a few of my favourite Muslim female Olympians, one British Muslim woman not on my list deserves a special mention. Zaha Hadid has played an important role in London 2012. The globally renowned and award winning Iraqi born architect designed the iconic Aquatic Centre where the swimming events are taking place. It is also important to recognize that a Muslim woman has designed one of the Olympic landmark buildings.
Some of the Muslim female Olympians from past to present that I would like people to know about are:
Halet Cambel (Turkey)
1936 Berlin Games
First Muslim Woman to Compete in the Olympics
The first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics was archeologist, Halet Cambel. When the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk promoted women’s sports, she took up fencing and represented Turkey in the 1936 Berlin Games. She was even invited by a female German Official to meet Hitler, but refused on political grounds.
Nawal El Moutawakel (Morocco)
1984 Los Angeles Games
First Muslim to Woman Gold Medal
Nawal El Moutawakel made history at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. When she won the 400m hurdles race, she by became the first Muslim woman and first African female to win an Olympic gold medal. The victory was a breakthrough for sporting women in Morocco and other Muslim countries. Since her Olympic win, El Moutawakel has continued to be a role model and break new ground.
In the late 1990s El Moutawakel organised the first Moroccan women’s 10 km race through the streets of Casablanca. It now attracts more than 27,000 participants annually. She was appointed inspector at the Ministry of Sport and Youth, as well as the national sprint and hurdle coach. She was named Minister of Sports in 2007. She became a pioneer again in 2008 when she became the first Muslim woman to be elected to the powerful executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who are responsible for setting the Olympic agenda. Her huge contribution towards women in sport was recognized when she received her Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
Hassiba Boulmerka (Algeria)
1992 Barcelona Games
First to win Olympic Gold for Algeria
Hassiba Boulmerka made history for Algeria. She won a gold medal in the 1500m race at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was Algeria’s first gold medal at the Olympic Games. Although she was hailed as a national hero by some, Boulmerka was also condemned by extremist groups for showing too much of her body while competing. Death threats eventually forced her to move to Europe for training. Boulmerka went on to win medals at the World Championships – a bronze in 1993 and a gold in 1995. She retired from athletics in 1997 and is now a successful businesswoman.
Lida Fariman (Iran)
1996 Atlanta Games
First Muslim woman to wear hijab at Olympics
When Lida Fariman participated in the 1996 games, she was the first woman to do so since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Her participation was significant because she was the only woman in Iran’s squad of 18 and she became the first Iranian woman to carry her country’s flag at the opening ceremony. As she was competing in the target shooting, she was allowed to wear the headscarf, making her the first to do so at the Olympics.
Ruqaya Al Ghasara (Bahrain)
2004 Athens Games
First Muslim female runner to wear hijab at Olympics
When Ruqaya Al Ghasara represented Bahrain in the 2004 Athens Games, she became the first female runner to wear a full hijab (headscarf) at the Olympics. She was also one of the first women to represent her country at the games (although Bahraini women had participated in the 1984 Paralympics). To participate in the 100m sprint races she had to overcome a lot of objections from fundamentalists. Although Ghasra did not win a medal, she went on to win a gold at the Asian Games in the 200m race and also competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she was her country’s flag bearer. She is not participating in the London 2012 Olympics as she retired in 2009.
Nurcan Taylan (Turkey)
2004 Athens Games
First female to win Olympic gold for her country
When Nurcan Taylan claimed gold at the 2004 Athens Games, she became Turkey’s first female Olympic gold medalist. However, the 5ft tall reigning world champion and six times European champion is not participating in the London games after failing a drugs test. The 28 year old now face a four-year ban. Although Taylan has been involved in a doping scandal, I felt she deserved to be mentioned because she is a weight lifting legend in 48kg category – she holds six European and one world record with another two tied world records.
Nur Suryani Mohammed Taibi (Malaysia)
London 2012 Games
Most Pregnant Olympian
A few days after finding out she was selected for the Olympic team for London 2012, Taibi, found out she was pregnant. Only a few pregnant women have competed in the Olympics, but Taibi is certainly making history by being the most pregnant woman to participate in the games at 8 months pregnant. These are Taibi’s first Olympics, and the Games will be even more special because she is sharing the moment with the baby daughter inside of her. Taibi is ranked 47th in the world and won two gold medals at the Southeast Asian Games in 10 meter air rifle and 50 meter rifle in last November.
Khadija Mohammed (United Arab Emirates)
London 2012 Games
First female weight lifter from the Gulf
This 17 year old is a future star because she is the first female Emirati and one of the few Muslim women who qualified outright for the Olympics. Many others were given wild card entries because they did not meet the Olympic qualifying standard. Khadija Mohammed is also making history by being the first female weight lifter from the Gulf at the Olympics. She was only introduced to weight lifting two years ago by former Egyptian Olympic lifter Najwan El Zawawi, who established a gym in the U.A.E Mohammed who will be competing in the 75kg category is fortunate that her family is supporting her dreams. There is widespread resistance to weight lifting in Muslim families and societies because it is confused with bodybuilding – they fear girls will develop masculine bodies and not receive marriage proposals.
Sarah Attar and Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim (Saudi Arabia)
London 2012 Games
Making history for Saudi Arabia
Sarah Attar is competing in the 800m race and Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim in judo at the London 2012 Games. They are making history by becoming the first women to represent Saudi Arabia. Although they both actually live outside of the Kingdom, this is a very important breakthrough for one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world. This paves the way for women activists to demand internal policy changes, enactment of laws and provision to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within and outside the kingdom.
Woroud Sawalha (Palestine)
London 2012 Games
Making it to the Olympics despite living in an area of conflict
Woroud Sawalha has made it to the London 2012 games despite being surrounded by violence, subjected to travel restrictions, facing regular security checks and having no training facilities. The 20-year old is taking part in the 800m event. Sawalha is unlikely to win a medal because her personal best is 53 seconds slower than the Olympic gold medal-winning time. However, for her just competing under the Palestinian flag will be a source of pride. The U.N. does not recognize a Palestinian state but athletes have been allowed to compete under a Palestinian flag by the International Olympic Committee since 1996. Sawalha will not be the first woman to represent Palestine as they sent the first female athlete in 2000.
Tahmina Kohistani (Afghanistan)
London 2012 Games
Female athlete from a war torn country
Tahmina Kohistani will be Afghanistan’s only female athlete at the London Games. She will be competing in the 100 and 200m events. The 23-year-old runner will be the third woman ever from the war-torn country to compete in the Olympics. Kohistani has been training at Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, a place where the Taliban used to carry out public executions – a reminder of the brutality of the former regime. However, Afghanistan still remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Kohistani’s presence at the games is therefore even more important because she will not only be representing herself but all women of Afghanistan. She will be helping to pave the way for other Afghan girls to follow in her footsteps. A woman participating in sports was something unthinkable 10 years ago when the Taliban were in control. Despite breaking barriers, Kohistani does not have the whole nation behind her. Olympics preparations took place behind guarded doors due to fear of retribution. She has encountered hostility from a very religiously conservative society that severely opposes women playing sports and participating in any form of public life.
Fatima Sulaiman Dahman (Yemen)
London 2012 Olympics
Only female athlete representing her country
Fatima Sulaiman will be the only female athlete representing Yemen at the London Olympics. She has had to overcome strong male prejudices and civil unrest to make it to the games. In Yemen girls are only allowed to train inside stadiums. So whenever Dahman wants to train outside, she waits until dark so no one can see her. During the uprisings in Yemen it was difficult for Dahman to leave her home to train. When Dahman was able to travel to the stadium, she had to mostly practice alone because there are only a few other female athletes in her country. When she first joined her sports club, there were 20 girls but now she is the only one left because the others did not receive support from their families to continue. The lack of family encouragement is not surprising in such a strongly male-dominated and tribal society, where child marriage is common. However, Dahman’s parent, both doctors, encouraged her to compete. The 19-year-old received an Olympic scholarship and entered the women’s 100m event.
Bahia Al Hamad, Nada Arkaji, Noor Al-Malki and Aia Mohamed (Qatar)
London 2012 Games
First Qatari women to compete in Olympics
Shooter, Bahia Al Hamad, swimmer, Nada Arkaji, sprinter, Noor Al-Malki and table tennis player Aia Mohamed are making history for Qatar by becoming the first women to represent their tiny nation at the Olympics. Bahia Al Hamad was also given the privilege of carrying her country’s flag at the opening ceremony. Perhaps it is no surprise that Qatar are encouraging women to play sports because they will be bidding to host the 2024 Olympic Games. Qatar can lead the way in the Gulf region and in the rest of the Muslim world by promoting sports for women.
Egyptian Women’s Olympic Team
London 2012 Games
Country with the largest delegation of Muslim women
Egypt has the most Muslim women in their team compared with any other Arab or Islamic nations at the London 2012 Olympics. Despite their political instability, Egypt has 36 female Olympians, which is the largest female delegation it has ever sent. The number breaks the previous record of 29 Egyptian women athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The women will be competing in archery, athletics, badminton, fencing, , gymnastics, pentathlon, rowing, shooting, swimming (including synchronized swimming), table tennis, taekwondo, weight lifting and wrestling.
Published on Huffington Post (Sports Section) – 19th July 2012
As a women’s rights activist, I am really pleased that the London 2012 Olympics will be the first to include female athletes from every competing nation. Brunei and Qatar had previously held out on female inclusion but will now have women representing their countries. This left Saudi Arabia as the lone nation not sending women up until they reversed their decision last week when they announced that Sarah Attar would compete in the 800m race and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim in judo.
Although they are only sending two athletes, who actually live outside of the Kingdom, I think this is a very important breakthrough considering Saudi Arabia is one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world. Some critics argue that this decision changes little for women inside the country. I disagree because progress is already underway and women are a part of that change. King Abdullah, who has been the most progressive monarchy so far, has already started planting the seeds of change for his successor to build upon.
These measured steps cannot be ignored. The control exercised by religious scholars over state matters is slowly being decreased. So the decision to include women in the Saudi Olympics team is another victory over the hardline clerics. Judging from King Abdullah’s recent track record, he may well have wanted women from within the kingdom to participate in the London games contrary to what the clergy wanted, who don’t want women involved in sports at all. They claim it leads to immorality and that excessive movements and jumping may also cause girls to tear their hymens and lose their virginity. I have to say these religious scholars seem obsessed with sex – ‘protecting virginity’ tends to be the most commonly used excuse to curb the rights of women and girls. It has even been used to ban women from driving. So under the circumstances perhaps the best compromise for now was sending two sportswomen who lived outside the kingdom.
I know the rate of progress is frustratingly slow but a gradual approach is more likely to achieve women’s rights that are sustainable. We must remember that the monarch is fighting a constant ‘tug of war’ with the religious establishment who impose strict gender segregation and prohibit women from doing most things, unless they are granted permission by a male relative, such as husband, father, or son etc. They are very influential in Saudi Arabia and if the pace of change is too rapid, the public will probably side with the clergy.
With regards to sports, Saudi Arabia will be making history by sending a mixed gender Olympics team. They have set a precedent now – it will be hard to reverse this commitment in four years time. This decision now paves the way for women activists to demand internal policy changes, enactment of laws and provision to allow women and girls to play sports and compete within and outside the kingdom. Currently they have little opportunity to get involved in sports because physical education is not allowed in girl’s schools and there are no sports facilities for women. Also, most of the 150 or so sports clubs that are officially registered with government do not allow females into their sports grounds. So for these Olympic games, there may not have been females inside Saudi Arabia at the appropriate standard to participate anyway. However, there will be no excuses next time – they have plenty of time to train Saudi women for the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Published on Huffington Post (World Section) – 13th July 2012
When I saw the horrifying footage of 22-year-old Najiba being publicly executed the first thought that came to my mind was, are Afghan women and girls ever going to get justice? Clearly not, considering the lack of interest shown by the Afghanistan government in women’s rights. The majority of men who have beaten, raped and killed women go unpunished. In April, Young Women for Change defied safety fears and came out in a public protest to highlight these cases. However, no government official could be bothered to come out and listen to their concerns. Perhaps this is not surprising when you consider what the Minster of Justice thinks about vulnerable women. Last month Habibullah Ghaleb claimed those living in women’s shelters are prostitutes. Despite calls from women’s NGOs, President Karzai has refused to fire the minister.
There should be zero tolerance of such attitudes amongst decision makers, particularly if they are in charge of spending budgets on improving the rights of women. Donor countries had the perfect opportunity to intervene. They had every right to demand the removal of Ghaleb. The U.S. alone is spending $110 million annually on the Afghan judicial system and this minister is making decisions on how some of these funds are used, which includes improving women’s access to justice. When he has shown he cannot be objective about women, why have all aid donors accepted that Ghaleb remains in charge of how their money is spent?
Despite such vast sums going into the judiciary, the rights of Afghan girls and woman continue to be abused both in national and local courts. Most are unaware of their legal rights and lack support to defend their rights through the judicial system. So what on earth is the money being spent on? The fact that the Taliban had the audacity to carry out Najiba’s execution so publicly (with 150 or so men watching) and only a few miles from the capital city of Kabul shows lack of government control. It raises the question, do the Taliban control everything outside of Kabul or are some government officials colluding with them?
So the only hope that women and girls have is the international community, and by that I mean all of us. We need to question our governments on why our money is not improving the safety of women and girls and providing them with justice. These questions should have been asked a long time ago, because “Afghanistan has received nearly $60-billion in civilian aid since 2002.”
Perhaps the image of Najiba kneeling down in the dirt and being shot several times at close range has finally outraged us enough to speak out. Stories of Afghan women suffering violence regularly make it into the news. How many times have we just ended up sharing them through social media and done little more than that? I have been guilty of that, too — but this time I was so angry that I felt compelled to do something and contribute in some way. Within hours of watching Najiba’s murder, I set up a petition calling on the governments of the UK, U.S., Germany and Japan to ensure the Afghan government not only bring Najiba’s killers to justice, but do more to protect Afghan women. You, too, can join in and take action by signing and sharing the petition.
Recently, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also made a public statement. He said he was “shocked and disgusted” by Najiba’s murder. He has even publicly called upon the Afghanistan government to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, once the publicity subsides, he and other world leaders will forget her. Najiba will just become another Afghan female statistic. We can make sure that world leaders do not forget this Afghan woman — her death can be used to help other women and girls get justice. Powerful images can turn history and perhaps Najiba’s video may do the same. In a country where demonstrations are rare, dozens came out in Kabul to protest against her killing and demand that the government take serious action to prevent violence against women.
The Afghan government depends almost entirely on foreign aid and I think it is time to say “if you want the money, you must show how you are protecting women’s rights.” The global public needs to ensure donor governments make that happen. If women’s rights are not improved over the next four years, the likelihood is that the most educated and skilled women will leave the country while the rest will be too scared to go out and continue to suffer in silence.
Around the world, women have less power, money and less protection from violence. They also have less access to education, healthcare and justice. Despite these injustices, women everywhere (including Muslim women) are standing up to claim their rights and becoming powerful forces for change. They are amazingly determined and resourceful in their fight to achieve a better future for themselves, their daughters, their communities and for other women.
However, change does not happen by itself and will not continue to happen unless there is conscious action. So to help women take that conscious action to make change happen, become empowered and help others to become empowered, I recommend 10 power tools. Women will already be doing some of these – but it is always useful and helpful to have a checklist.
These power tools are (listed in no particular order):
Power Tool 1 – Know Your History
It is important to remember those who came before us including the challenges they faced. Not knowing your history is like having a tree without any roots. History can be a source of empowerment because it will tell you that women were not confined to mothering and household duties. There were female scholars, leaders, judges, philanthropists, scientists, businesswomen, poets, experts in medicine etc. However, the achievements of these women go unrecognized even in Muslim countries today. A coinscious effort should be made to retell the stories of our sisters from the past. To find out more about such women, visit www.bigsister.org.uk and click on the ‘Big Sisters in History‘ section, where at least 50 women from different centuries and various fields of work have been listed.
Power Tool 2 – Know Your Islamic Rights
The roles of women in society and the barriers they face are determined socially and then justified through culture and religion. Some men and even some women will decide how they want women to behave and then they will package their opinions to make others believe they are the divine will of God. If women have Islamic knowledge, they can no longer be held hostage to patriarchal interpretations of their faith. If they have knowledge then they can question opinions that limit women’s lives and women’s choices. However, it is important to investigate what the Quran says about women first. It is surprising the number of people that have not read the entire Quran in a language they understand and instead rely on secondary sources for their information. Without reading the Quran how can women anyone know if the secondary sources are misleading or not – whether they are objective or not? Remember that submission to God is more than carrying out ritual acts with the body. We must also submit intellectually and investigate God’s wisdom.
Power Tool 3 – Define What Power Means to You
Often women are afraid to become leaders because they associate it with power, which they in turn associate with negatives such as: corruption, disempowering others, oppression, gatekeeping, abuse, being obstructive etc. However, if women start to define what power means to them and associate positive values with it such as: enabling, empowering, educating, giving agency, change catalyst, transformative – then women are more likely to be drawn to leadership.
Power Tool 4 – Define Your Own Goals
Don’t measure yourself by other people’s standards. Everyone can contribute to the best of their own abilities and strengths at different levels of society. God has given us all different gifts and that means everyone does not have to go out and try and change the world! You can make small changes happen and these are important too because collectively these lead to the bigger changes. Your goal may be to: go on a course to learn a new skill; express your views in a conversation; do voluntary work; bring up your sons and daughters equally; bring up your sons to respect women’s rights; give your daughters the choices and opportunities you did not have. Whatever the change, no matter how small, is important.
Power Tool 5 – Have an Action Plan
Once that spark has been ignited and you have set your goals, you will need to give your ideas fuel. This will come from an action plan – map out the steps you need to take to achieve your goals. In that plan define your own identity and create your own space.
Power Tool 6 – Have Courage
You will need courage to: challenge the status quo; speak out against injustices and discrimination; and push boundaries. And you will need to do all these things if you want to see change happen so your daughters and future generations of women can have a better life.
Power Tool 7 – Be Open Minded
Listen to and learn from the wisdom of others and think critically. We should be listening more than talking. God has given us two ears and one mouth so we should be listening twice as much as we are talking. We may find solutions and wisdom from the most unexpected places and people. Be open to learning all the time no matter how old you are and no matter what your status is.
Power Tool 8 – Building and Joining Networks and Movements
You are not alone – remember there are many other women who think like you and have the same aspirations. So connect with other women through networks whether local, regional, national or even global. If there is no network locally – set one up! A critical mass of women’s voices is likely to have a greater impact. Through networks, it is easier to: spread messages, and ideas; learn from others; and share experiences and knowledge. Partnerships, coalitions and movements are usually the driving force to changing attitudes and behaviours.
Power Tool 9 – Make Use of Internet Tools
Because of the internet, you can have an impact without leaving the house. Find out about all the tools that are available and use as many as you can or need. There are so many ways to share information through social networks and media such as: Facebook, Twitter, My Space, Youtube, Vimeo, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Digg, Reditt, Yahoo buzz etc. These are just a few ideas! You can even participate in or run your own online training sessions through Webinars (online seminars). You can even deliver lectures through Skype to people in other cities or even countries! Many websites also allow you to create your own free online petitions in minutes. Free applications allow you to create posters, cartoons and animations that can be used to spread your ideas. So go and explore what is available.
Power Tool 10 – Have a Motivational Slogan
Think of a favourite phrase that you can use as your mantra. This can be your innermost motivation when you need it. There will be times in your life journey where you get disappointed because things don’t go your way or you may lose momentum. Every step toward fulfilling your goals may be draining. Make sure you have something that you can pull out of the bag to uplift you because your friends cannot be there all the time.
Change doesn’t just happen, we collectively make it happen. So once you find your own path, lead others to find theirs!
There is no bigger heart than the heart of a mother. She will go hungry and feed her children. She feeds the world too as they grow half of the world’s food – yet she does not have enough to eat herself. Her domestic work is invisible, unpaid, undervalued and unrecognized – but is vital work. When employed, she carries out the most time consuming and manual activities while men get to do the less contraining mechanized work. When her income increases, she spends more on children than fathers do. Mothers do all this while carrying the future in their bellies. Indeed, there is no bigger heart than the heart of a mother!
My Youtube talk exploring the importance of Muslim women reading, understanding and interpreting the Quran so they are informed of their rights and can robustly challenge misinterpretations and increase accountability (Jan 2012).