Women’s Sports Progress in the Middle East

Women in the Middle East and Sport are not things that you would normally suggest are inextricably linked but perhaps things are beginning to change in this part of the world?

Females across the globe encounter many boundaries in terms of their access to sport but is there a region that has more cultural and social obstacles that must be hurdled?

There is still a long way to go as these examples will show.

As recently as February 2014, four members of the Iranian women’s national football team were found to actually be men. Even more incredibly, these four individuals will be allowed to re-join the side once they have had their sex change operations. Despite the fact that homosexuality and sex before marriage are illegal in the Islamic state. Random testing now regularly occurs at clubs and subsequently seven other players have been banned.

Iran’s deputy minister for sport has only just overturned a long-standing stadium ban on women attending sporting events nevermind actually participating in the action on the field of play. This issue was brought to the attention of the international media when a woman was jailed for five months in Tehran for the heinous crime of attempting to attend a volleyball match, worse still it was a men’s game.

So what is being done to combat these roadblocks? Well, the governments in the region are concerned about the rising obesity and diabetes rates, with the figures relating to females particularly alarming. Introducing physical education into the compulsory part of the curriculum is seen as a means of tackling this worrying trend.

Football is leading the way in the advancement of women’s sport in the Middle East. The amount of sport, especially football that is shown on television has definitely increased interest and awareness. The West Asian Football Federation Championship sometimes known simply as the WAFF Championship, that was introduced to women’s football in 2005 is seen as a tremendous step forward. Qatar, Syria, Palestine, UAE, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Syria have all competed, which given the other difficulties these nations have had/currently face this makes it all the more remarkable.

Women’s basketball teams from the Middle East have sporadically competed in the FIBA Asia Championship but participation has been on an upward curve. The contentious issue of female player’s wearing a hijab while playing continues to be problematic and prohibitive. Football’s governing body FIFA, overturning a ban on the hijab in 2012 is a step in the right direction but other sporting association’s not following suit is less than helpful.

The wealthy Middle Eastern elite are seeing the benefits of girls playing sports as they become more exposed to the rest of the world through travelling and residing in other countries. Numerous university studies have illustrated that women who regularly participate in sport generally are more successful at school and then at work. They also exhibit greater self-confidence and levels of competiveness. Of course, there is traditional resistance to what is seen as the infiltration of Western ideas and ideals into Middle Eastern culture. But you only have to look at the success of multinational fast food chains such as McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Burger King in the region to see that it is very possible.

It seems only a matter of time before women and men compete on a level playing field in the Middle East. External pressure, globalisation and a young population are all contributing factors to this seemingly unstoppable progression. With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar fast approaching this area of the world will want to be seen as diverse, open minded, welcoming and tolerant.



Watching the Football in Qatar


Rumours have been circulating that the legendary Spanish footballer, Xavi, having won everything there is to win in the game, is about to sign for my ‘local’ team, Al Sadd, here in Qatar. I thought this would be a timely opportunity to see one of their games and to let him know what a football fan’s perspective is on the spectator experience.
So why Al Sadd? Well firstly, they are my local team and are only a 5 minute drive away. Secondly, they boast an impressive history. Founded in 1969 with the awesome nickname ‘Al Zaeem’ (roughly translated as ‘the boss’)

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You might say they are the Manchester United or Liverpool of Qatar, with one of the largest followings and having been winners of the Qatari League 11 times (more than any other team). They have also won the Asian Champions League on 2 occasions, which is why you will…

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Foreign Managers & Players in Arabian Football Leagues

World Cup and European Championship winner, seven time league winner and three time Champions League winner – doesn’t sound like your typical Qatari league footballer does it?

But that’s exactly what Doha based club Al Sadd will be getting as of 1 July 2015, when FC Barcelona superstar Xavi Hernandez moves to the Middle East. While the Spanish midfield maestro is certainly not at the peak of his powers it is a big statement of intent for football in this region.

The links between Barça and the Gulf State are well established with Qatar Airways being Blaugrana’s first ever commercial shirt sponsor but even so it must have been a very attractive offer to convince Xavi to leave one of the biggest clubs in the world. Not to mention turning down equally lucrative offers from other European teams, the MLS, Australia or even the option of simply retiring.

The marquee acquisition of one of the world’s most famous and decorated players of the modern era is a much needed positive sports news story for the Middle East; which has been making a lot of headlines for the wrong reasons. Since Qatar controversially won the right to host the 2022 World Cup the media spotlight has been firmly fixed on the area. Allegations of bribery, countless human right abuses, migrant worker deaths and exploitation as well as corruption have routinely featured in the western media. The sudden death of Ecuadorian Christian Benitez at the age of just 27 from a cardiac arrest; after playing just one match for Qatari side El Jaish Sports Club, raised serious questions about the viability of playing football in such extreme temperatures during the summer.

These concerns have contributed to the unprecedented decision by the football world governing body FIFA to move the 2022 World Cup to the winter months.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that playing football in the Middle East is purely a graveyard for has-been footballers looking for a highly-paid semi-retirement. That may have been the case in the past with players like Real Madrid legends Fernando Hierro and Raul joining Al Sadd and Al Rayyan respectively in Qatar. It is worth noting that Raul has subsequently reversed his decision to hang up his boots and is now plying his trade for the New York Cosmos.

This trend has recently been bucked by two of Europe’s most up and coming managers in the form of Michael Laudrup and Manuel Jimenez taking up positions at Lekhwiya and Al Rayyan. The standard of the league as well as the individual players under their supervision can only benefit by having access to such top class coaching and expected levels of professionalism. Not to mention Argentinian international Lucho Gonzalez, Vladimir Weiss and Chico Flores currently turning out in the Qatari division. These are players in their prime that have turned their back on the glamour of the most prestigious European competitions.

There is a real determination to put football on the map in the Middle East and key to this is the performance of the Qatar national football team at the 2022 World Cup. President Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al-Thani is desperate for the national side to hold their own on the biggest stage of all and show that there is more to the country than being oil rich.

Xavi may not be the first high profile footballer to make the move to the Middle East but he is unlikely to be the last.