Women in sport

A sporting chance

By Seth J. Frantzman, published March 7, 2014

In the 2012 London Olympics, one of the runners in the women’s 800 meters stood out from the rest in her heat. Wrapped in a white head scarf and wearing long black leggings, Woroud Sawalha encompassed the international aspect of the games, a conservatively dressed Palestinian Muslim woman among Canadians, Russians and Czechs.

Various news outlets portrayed her as the “pride” of Palestine. But she was more pragmatic in an interview with CNN, explaining. “This will reflect on my female friends and on sports in Palestine… maybe the view of girls will change from practicing sports in a more professional way and more freely in front of people.”

Sawalha’s participation raised eyebrows back home.

One of the women she made an impression on is Yara Dowani, an expert in sports management who teaches swimming at a high school in east Jerusalem. Dowani is also an anomaly in the role she inhabits as a woman in Arab culture. For Dowani, when she saw Sawalha in London, she realized how important it was for people to see an Arab woman in the London Olympics.

“They see them participating in the most important sport event, such as the Olympics, like Sawalha, who wears a veil [hijab]. She participated in the running event with pants and long sleeves, and had more attention worldwide. People love to support women from the Arab world, because it helps to change the minds about the country, religion and culture.” It has this dual effect – raising awareness of women in the Arab world, and pride for taking part.

Dowani, 21, was born in Jerusalem and lives in the upper class neighborhood of Beit Hanina. She began her interest in sport as a young age, swimming and training at the YMCA. She received a scholarship and went to Barcelona to study sports management, submitting a thesis earlier this year on the development of women’s sport in Palestine and contrasting it with the empowerment of women in society.

Sitting down with the Magazine, Dowani provides an insight into some of the current issues in Palestinian society regarding women in sports. “I was an athlete and I faced some barriers. I was doing swimming and karate for eight years… I had the advantage of not being from a religious family, and was supported by my parents to do sport. They believed it is important and let me enroll in any activity. But other people who come from religious backgrounds, the barriers they face is that when they reach puberty, when they become young women, like 14 years old, they have some restrictions like they can’t do sports with males, for example football, cycling or swimming.”

Some activities that Western women take for granted are not considered acceptable in many Palestinian neighborhoods. “If I ride around here on a bicycle, some people will look at me like I am a freak,” she says.

PALESTINIAN SCHOOLS have traditionally suffered from a dearth of sports facilities and the ones that do exist tend to cater to men. Yet in recent years, sports have gotten a boost from international participation.

Although Palestine is not widely recognized as a state everywhere, FIFA, the world soccer body, recognized it in 1998, and since 1996 Palestinians have competed under the International Olympic Committee flag at the Olympics, a spot reserved for non-recognized states that nevertheless send athletes to the games.

In 2008, the first women’s soccer club was formed in Bethlehem. Moreover, Jabril Rajoub, head of the Palestine Olympic Committee and Football Federation, has been an outspoken supporter of women in sport.

Dowani has seen improvements. She argues that increased participation of women in sports can benefit and empower women throughout society. “When women see that other women are doing sports without [facing] problems, [they see] that they have a better future or opportunities and it isn’t affecting them in a negative way; they see the effect it has on health, social life. They feel more active and are more encouraged to do it, and they see that they also receive scholarships and opportunities in academic life.”

But religious conservatism still has a long term affect.

“In public schools, mixed [coed] schools, they offer sports programs, for instance the school in Beit Safafa, sometimes they separate boys and girls and give them different games and activities. I don’t think it is good because a woman feels she can’t do the same or can’t be in mixed [company]. In the private school where I work we do swimming and we don’t separate them, and we don’t have problems with this because we start when they are young. They grow up thinking they can do the same thing as boys and they feel more comfortable.”

For women, empowerment grows out of sports naturally, argues Dowani. “It gives them values other than health benefits. It makes her feel more confident about herself, her body; it gives her values such as leadership and makes her more open-minded. She pushes herself more.”

But there is a long way to go. Confronting conservative religious figures is one problem. On one website, a photo of Sawalha was doctored to show four boxes next to her, labeled “shorts,” which was unchecked, and iman, taqwa and hijab, all of which were checked.

The terms iman and taqwa refer to tenets of Islamic belief. The idea is that she fulfilled her religious obligations, and running shorts come second.

Dowani thinks these stereotypes and issues can be overcome; facilities can take into account religious norms, and they can be closed to the public, enforce a modest dress code and have qualified female instructors.

The most important thing is to spread awareness and encourage “a better society, and get people to focus their energy on something positive and come together – not just in politics and conflict.”

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