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.