Religion and Sports
Islam and Women's Sports
Traditional Muslim physical activity culture, including strength training, is not focused on breaking records. But with globalization and its processes, this is changing. With the spread of modern sports of English origin in Muslim countries, women, too, are now being "infected" by the general craze of sports.
. . . but the Female Body Must Be Covered
Muslims interested in sports must contend with the fact that whenever sport is practiced, Islamic laws must be followed. This means, above all, that the body must be covered and that men and women must practice sports separately.
Another factor that hinders or even precludes women's freedom of movement, and thus their participation in sports, is Islam's precept of virginity. What is important, here, is the intense fear that the hymen might be damaged while practicing a sport, and that a girl's whole future could be at risk because of it. Moreover, a girl's or a young woman's good name is jeopardized whenever she leaves the house, especially in the evening hours when she is out of her family's supervision and control. A further obstacle preventing women from taking up a sport is the fear that they might become physically and mentally "masculinized."
Here, however, it must be emphasized that there is a wide range of attitudes and behavior patterns in the different Islamic cultures. Likewise, there are great differences in the extent of interest and active participation shown by Muslim women in sports. In some countries, women engaging in sports is considered anathema to the Islamic concept of femininity, which restricts women's actions to the home and family. In other countries, like Iran for example, some flexibility has surfaced with the emergence of a women's sports movement.
Women in Iran: Possibilities and Limitations
Today in Iran, sports is "in" and the enthusiasm surrounding sports has had a great impact on society. It is men's soccer in particular that has enthralled the masses.
Iranian women have two possible ways of practicing sports -- either in private facilities to which men have no access, or in public where they have to wear appropriate clothing. For example, women can take part in skiing and hiking. The numerous hiking paths and skiing pistes in the mountains to the north of Tehran testify to this. On public holidays, the winding road up to Tochal Mountain (whose summit is served by a cable car) is crowded with masses of people making their way to the top and women in coats and headscarves.
Mountaineering is popular among women and is largely accepted. There is a Women's Mountaineering Association, whose president is a woman, of course! The group even led a women's expedition to the Everest region in October 2001. Three of the climbers reached the peak of the 7,000-meter Mount Pumori. In 2005, two Iranian women even conquered Mount Everest.
Let us return to Tehran, where decently dressed youngsters can play badminton, table tennis, or volleyball in the parks. It can happen, however, that girls, if they are not well-covered, are rebuked by stern-looking women wrapped in chadors. Other sports that are possible in public are jogging, canoeing, and horseback riding, which are made difficult by the dress code but not impossible. Nevertheless, warning voices from the conservatives are very much alive. They often quibble that even with loose and ample clothes, too much of a woman's figure is revealed, as is in archery for instance, when drawing back the bowstring. They argue that cycling is not only an unchaste sight but more importantly, provides a greater radius of freedom to a girl or woman, thus limiting the possibility of male control.