By Gertrud Pfister

photo courtesy of Liv Unni Sodem via C.C. License at FlickrIslamic women in sports appears to be a contradiction in terms -- at least this is what many people in the West believe. The conviction that women in Islamic countries either cannot, will not, or may not take part in sports (or at least in competitive sports) is partly borne out of the fact that Muslim immigrants, especially women, scarcely take any active part in sports.

In the Olympic Games, for example, where nearly half of the participants are female, women from Islamic countries are a small, nearly invisible minority. But there are exceptions. There is Nawal El Moutawakel, a Moroccan hurdler who won the women's 400-meter event at the 1984 Summer Olympics, or Hassiba Boulmerka who won an Olympic gold medal in the 1500-meter run in 1992. When the latter returned to Algeria, she was hailed as a national heroine and a model for Arab women who want to break away from restrictive roles. But she was also condemned by Islamic fundamentalists and was forced to move to Europe to train.

Increasing Interest in Women's Sports

Except in Islamic cultures in North Africa, modern sports do not play a prominent role in the various Islamic cultures, and Muslim women particularly do not have easy access to physical activities. However, we should be aware that interest and the engagement of Muslim women in sports are increasing.

I invite you now to follow me on a discovery trip to Muslim cultures where we try to find out about the contested and ambivalent relations between women, bodies, sports, religion, and culture. As we go on, let's remember that the lives and roles of women (and men) differ decisively, depending on the country, as well as on such variables as social class, religious orientation, place of residence (city or countryside), etc.

Women's Exclusion: Different Interpretations

In Islamic countries, women's (and men's) lives and roles are influenced, to a high degree, by the Qur'an and the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. However, these texts can be read and understood in various ways, and their interpretations are often controversial and contested.

This is especially true in recent Muslim history where reactions to the challenges of modernity range from fundamentalism to liberalism. For example, current movements that espouse ijtihad (exercise of reasoning) have led to differences in reading and understanding the laws in the new context of modern life.

These days, discussions and heated debates on the "clash of the cultures" often focus on the role of women in family and society. Muslim feminists claim that neither the Qur'an nor Muhammad's sayings prescribe women's exclusion from public life. According to them, the dominance of men in all areas of society is to be attributed to a mixture of Islam and patriarchal traditions. However, in the context of threatening modernization and globalization processes, women's bodies and roles have become "politicized." Their subordination is embedded in the collective identities of many Muslim societies where the notion of gender is based on the assumption of the essentially different "natures" of the sexes. The construction of woman as the "weaker sex" and concern about women's bodies have decisive influences on sports and the physical activities of girls and women.