Breaking Barriers

Posted on Feb 11, 2015 | 0 comments

Breaking Barriers

As Qatar continues to develop, more women are interested in becoming athletes. But social and cultural obstacles prevent many from achieving their dreams.

By Sara Al-Thani

“I can’t do what I love because I am a girl, because I am something I didn’t ask to be.” This is how 17-year-old Mai Nasser recalled feeling when her family discouraged her from joining the Qatari national women’s soccer team. “It doesn’t motivate me when I am forced to pick another career that I am not really interested in just to please society,” she said. This begs the question: how much have gender relations truly changed in Qatar, particularly in sports?

A decade ago, Qatari women were expected to lead their lives primarily as housewives, taking care of the children and household. However, as Qatar continues to rapidly develop, gender expectations have changed. According to the Annual Abstract of Statistics 2013, produced by the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, the number of Qatari female students at universities in the country exceeds that of Qatari male students nearly 3 to 1. Qatari women are also making strides in the labor force. They make up one third of the participation rate, according to the Annual Bulletin of Labor Force Survey 2013, filling positions mainly in governmental departments.

Although women are finding new opportunities in the workplace and in previously male-dominated fields of work, sports is proving to be a difficult field to tap into for many women including Nasser. “I love playing football and it is a sport that many people in this part of the world see it as a manly sport, including my parents. That makes it harder for them to accept it and let me play the sport in public,” she said. Whether it is family or friends, school or other social pressure, many different issues play into a woman’s decision to pursue sports professionally.

For Nada Arkaji, a Qatari swimmer, these factors positively impacted her decision to pursue sports. Arkaji is on the national women’s swimming team and was the first female Qatari to participate in the 2012 Olympics in London. She said her family’s support was essential for her to succeed in this field. “I come from a sporty background. My father was a football player, he played for the national team. He was very encouraging in terms of pursuing my dreams and doing sports,” she explained. Without her family and community’s encouragement, Arkaji believes a career in sports would not have been one of her options. “I don’t know what I would have done without their support.”

Family’s Reputation

In Qatari culture, family members, especially females, are considered representatives of the moral values held by their families. “If I do something that goes against the local customs, I will be viewed negatively by society… this will reflect badly on my family,” Nasser said. This often leads parents to discourage their daughters from playing sports publicly.

“My parents understand the importance of sports to my health and they do encourage me to play, but not in front of strangers or men,” said Nasser. Drawing attention to oneself goes against the cultural expectations of female modesty in Qatari culture and doing so could tarnish a woman’s reputation, ultimately affecting her family. “My mother does not want people to see me on T.V. or live [in front of spectators] and say something about me that would harm my reputation. Because if I put myself out there people will assume I am doing it for the wrong reasons, like I’m there to get the attention of men.”

But Nasser is lucky in that her parents at least allow her to play in private. She said many of her friends cannot because their parents do not think sports are “appropriate” for girls in general.

“I usually meet up with some [female] friends to play football privately. Some of my friends come without telling their families because they know that they would say no if they asked… playing sports shouldn’t be a secret,” she said.

According Mead Al-Emadi, a spokesperson for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, this kind of thinking is common in the Gulf region. “A lot of girls have the passion and they want to play… but it is the [lack of] awareness from the parents and the older generation,” said Al-Emadi.

To combat this, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy has launched several initiatives to encourage a more active lifestyle for women in Qatar, including the Jeeran initiative, which means neighbor in English. “We go to majlises (area for common gatherings) and reach out to older people, and we go to women’s majlises and showcase the importance of women participating in different sports,” said Al-Emadi.

Age

Nasser said her family was not always against her decision to play sports. The high school senior was allowed to play sports publicly at a young age. However, expectations for her changed as she grew older toward womanhood. “I started playing sports in school for as long as I can remember, but I stopped once I turned 15 because I was no longer considered a kid.”

Eman Al-Turkey, a senior at Qatar University, also faced the same fate when she was told she was “too old” to keep playing handball, her favorite sport, in front of other people. She had wanted to play the sport professionally, but her parents said it was inappropriate to do so for modesty reasons. “I was not a kid anymore. My family saw that and convinced me to apply for university and get a job,” said Al-Turkey. “My family didn’t want me to put my reputation at risk… some women at this age [18 years old] are considered to be eligible for marriage,” said the now 21 year old.

Religion

Nada Zeidan was the first Qatari female to participate and represent Qatar in various archery and rallying (auto racing) competitions. “There were no female participants in archery. For years I was the only one,” said Zeidan. The biggest challenge she faced stemmed from the Qatari custom of gender segregation. “When I was training I was the only girl. I insisted on training with the men. They were against me practicing with them, but I battled against this but I forced my will upon them.”

Many Qataris believe that playing sports like soccer or auto racing goes against Islamic values if the women are mixing with men and are not dressed appropriately to religious standards. Nasser said that another issue she faced when convincing her family to let her play soccer was the standard soccer clothing, as the shorts and t-shirt combination are considered “shameful” for Qatari women to wear in public. Nasser explained that wearing such attire could be perceived as an attempt to draw male attention to one’s physical appearance.

However, Nancy Elbassiouny, a senior research officer at the Center for the Study of Contemporary Muslim Societies at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, said Qataris reluctance to accept women playing sports is really more of a cultural issue than a religious one. “There is a huge difference with what Allah says and what Muslims say. Some Muslims might say things to put women in place but it’s not compatible with what Allah says.”

According to Elbassiouny, women in Islam have traditionally played an active and public role in society. “The women in Prophet Mohammed’s life were leaders in their own way, even Aisha [Prophet Mohammed’s wife] played a huge role in society from a young age. She was a teacher to many of the men and even went out to battle,” said Elbassiouny. “Qatar is trying to set an example and show that this change is good and is acceptable and you can do it too. But things don’t change over night, that takes time.”

Arkaji supports Elbassiouny's statement, adding that the change is already visible. “Sports is developing rapidly in Qatar, especially with those big events that Qatar is hosting. Qatar is providing a lot of opportunities to do with sports, and that is encouraging a lot of people to be interested in sports and to think about pursuing a sport… with time I think more and more girls will pursue sports,” she said.

Time

Susan Dun, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University in Qatar, recently conducted a survey on the topic of women in Qatar and investigated the main challenges they face with their involvement in sports. “The number one thing that prevents women here from being active is actually time, finding enough time in their schedule to go and be active. The second thing is the climate,” said Dun.

Al-Turkey supported this finding, saying one of the main reasons she does not participate in sports today is her inability to find time between her university work and her family obligations. “I was a very active kid. I love playing sports, especially handball, but I feel like I am already balancing a lot with university and family… I don’t have as much time to play,” she said.

Although many women in Qatar face difficulties scheduling in some time to exercise, Arkaji finds that maintaining a balance between training and studying has helped her to enhance her performance during finals week and competitions. “Both swimming and education complement each other. With swimming, I have to train in order to do well in competitions and that has helped me with my education and managing my time to revise for an exam to do well,” said Arkaji. “Swimming also helps me when I am in university because sometime there are stressful times where I have finals week or times when I have lots of final projects, assignments and exams. Swimming helps de-stress and gets me through hard times.”

Role Models

Despite the cultural and social obstacles they may face, for some women athletes the thought of being a role model encourages them to go where no Qatari woman has gone before and to open up new doors. “I want to represent the Qatari, Arab, Muslim woman in areas where they are perceived to be weaker than men,” said Zeidan. According to the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, there are currently 1,656 women on national sports teams in Qatar. Four participated in the latest Olympic games, which took place in 2012 in London.

However, according to Dun’s research of Qatari women, “the women didn’t find these particular female Olympians made them want to go and be active, which isn’t surprising because they are just starting to be role models.” Yet, “they did think that the female Olympians being there and participating are opening up opportunities for all women in Qatar,” she added.

Although Arkaji said she did not find inspiration from other athletes herself, being the first female swimmer on the Qatar national team and constantly overcoming obstacles was her own source of inspiration. “I motivate myself and push myself to reach new goals and that makes me more confident.” Her resolve has served her well. Arkaji was one of the Qatari women to participate in the 2012 Olympics.

Arkaji said she was overwhelmed by the support and love of her community, especially from young girls. “We had four girls go to the Olympics. That was a great start. I had a lot of young Qatari girls come up to me and tell me ‘I want to learn how to swim’ and ‘I want to be like you one day,’” said Arkaji. “That makes me really happy.”

Health

According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 77 percent of Qataris are overweight or obese. About 16 percent of the country’s adult population suffers from diabetes, based on research by the International Diabetes Federation.

Qatar is trying to reduce these numbers through several initiatives to include sports in the vision for the country’s future. The 2006 Asian Games, 2011 Asian Cup, and the establishment of Aspire Academy in 2004 are only a few examples of Qatar’s efforts to promote sports and an active and healthy lifestyle for it’s citizens.

However, local customs that restrict women to domestic roles have created some obstacles, and as a result, research shows that Qatari women are more likely to suffer from diabetes and weight issues than men. To combat this, the Qatar Olympic Committee has launched several initiatives to encourage a more active lifestyle for women. One of the most effective programs created by the QOC to get more women involved in sports is their women’s fitness program, which they hold for 60 days each year at Lyceé Voltaire, a French school in Doha. “We provide them [women] with equipment and trainers. Annually, this is a project that has been successful and we have received a lot of feedback from women and the number of participants keep increasing,” said Mohammed Al-Fadhala, a spokesperson for the QOC. “We hope this continues because if the mother participates, she will take her daughter and her friends and her sisters. Our goal is to embed these values and to make sports an essential part of their daily routine.”

Although women in Qatar are increasingly participating in sports and aware of its benefits, there are a few constraints that still hold them back, such as “motivation, time, place, climate and appropriate activities that are interesting and engaging to women,” said Dun. Despite the setbacks, she said the government’s efforts to improve this situation are evident. “The clearest indicator of that so far is the 2012 Qatari female Olympians… The woman carrying the [Qatari] flag was Bahia, the Qatari shooter, and I think that kind of support is a very clear indicator that opportunities will continue to develop and be available,” said Dun. “They hold the women up and create opportunities and more and more will take advantage of it.”

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