Middle Eastern women face ongoing battle for sports rights

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By KAYLA LOMBARDO
College Contributor Network

For Middle Eastern women, conflicts exist far beyond the political and military landscapes in the turmoil-laden region. Amid constant battles for fundamental human rights lie the issues of women's rights to play sports and attend sporting events. But, because of the dominating presence of male authorities in Middle Eastern nations, women are often overmatched, and even unarmed, in the battle for sports rights.

In Saudi Arabia, women and their participation in sports are largely left by the wayside, and often neglected altogether. In September, Saudi Arabian government officials denied female athletes the right to compete at the Asian Games, after allowing two of their women to compete in the 2012 London Olympics -– Sarah Attar in track and field and Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo -– for the first time in the country's history.

Although neither woman met the qualifying standards set by the International Olympic Committee, they gained entry because of the IOC's "universality" clause that permits athletes with special circumstances to compete "for reasons of equality." While at the Olympic Games, however, both women had to wear traditional Saudi clothing and be under the constant guardianship of men.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee, justified his country's decision to omit Saudi female athletes from this year's Asian Games by saying "they were not yet competitive enough." The kingdom's justification, however, fails to acknowledge its age-old rejection of women's rights, especially those of the sporting variety.

While al-Mishal added that Saudi Arabia promises to permit female athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he says their participation will be reduced to equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery -– as dictated by the Quran.

Despite the strides Saudi Arabian officials are promising to make for female athletes in 2016, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson isn't yet sold on the government's efforts.

Whitson said, "Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over -– Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women's right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men."

However, it will take more than just the entry of Saudi Arabian women into the 2016 Olympics to reverse the trend of gender discrimination in the tumultuous Middle Eastern nation.

The first step is to lift the ban on women's sports in Saudi Arabian public schools. With the absence of physical education and female sports teams in the country's schools and universities, there aren't any easily accessible feeder channels available for women's competition on the international level.

In addition, private training facilities are in short supply for Saudi women, and are usually limited to the country's upper echelon. Plus, without the presence of females in Saudi Arabia's sporting federations, aside from Arwa Mutabagani in the Equestrian Federation, Saudi women are lacking a voice in the sports world.

Apart from the ongoing battle for rights to play sports, Saudi women have long since struggled for rights to attend sporting events. Although plans to build separate sections for women in Saudi Arabian stadia have been in the works for years, they have been fervently quelled by conservative government officials, who wish to keep men and women apart in social settings like sporting events.

According to BBC News, a brave Saudi female soccer fan caused a social media uproar when she attended a match between Saudi Arabia's team Al Hilal and the United Arab Emirates's (UAE) Al Ain in October. Even though the match was played in the UAE, which allows females to attend sporting events, the Saudi woman's act of defiance against her motherland's laws was not well-received amongst Saudi men.

A video posted to YouTube captures the female soccer fan in attendance, and displays over 900 angry comments from heated Saudi Arabians.

One reads, "Women aren't interested in football, so why go to a stadium to watch a live match."

Another says, "Does this woman not have a man? Her place is in the house."

This incident reflects a similar situation in Iran, which, like Saudi Arabia, prevents the entry of women into sports stadia.

Also in October, 25-year-old British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami was sentenced to one year in prison after having been arrested in June while attending a volleyball match between Iran and Italy. Ghavami subsequently underwent a hunger strike while incarcerated in Tehran's Evin prison.

According to an article in the New York Times, "she was protesting against a new rule barring women from attending men's volleyball matches."

While human rights activists have rallied for Ghavami's release from jail for simply attending a volleyball match, Iran's judiciary officials are rejecting the notion that her case is a sports issue.

Ghavami was charged with dispersing anti-Iran propaganda during the match, along with several other female protestors. According to her lawyer, however, "she will be retried."

However, good news finally came for Ghavami and other Iranian female sports fans. The Huffington Post recently reported that the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) threatened to strip Iran of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men's world volleyball championship if it continues banning the attendance of women from matches.

Although the recent action of the FIVB is a step in the right direction for Middle Eastern women, the battle for sports rights will be ongoing for years to come.

According to Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, achieving progress in a country that is firmly set in its conservative cultural and religious ways involves help from outsiders, as well as the passing of time.

"There are a lot of serious reformists who want to see change but it takes a lot of time, months and years, to get the smallest changes," Coogle told Reuters.

In the meantime, Middle Eastern women are hoping that the achievement of sports rights will someday be a peaceful endeavor. But, only time will tell if it will prove to be the fight of their lives.


Kayla Lombardo is a senior at Fordham University. She plays third base for Fordham's softball team and is a passionate New York Yankees fan. Follow her on Twitter: @KaylaLombardo11
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