Religion and Sports
Islam and Women's Sports
In 2005, the Women's Games program was made up of 18 events. Some 1,700 athletes from 40 countries competed in events that included taekwondo, karate and futsal (five-a-side soccer), as well as volleyball and table tennis for women with disabilities. The opening ceremony, attended by 10,000 spectators, attracted public attention, as well as concern and apprehension from the country's religious leaders. Large groups of women -- and also men -- performed a modern dance, accompanied by psychedelic music, earning several standing ovations from the cheering audience. Delegates from 36 states, among them British and American women, participated in the various competitions.
The Women's Games were greeted in Iran as a great opportunity for women and sports, and as an alternative to the Olympic Games. However, many athletes (including women from the West) have pointed out that events of this kind support and legitimize the exclusion of women from the "real" world of sports. Also, many observed that the Muslim women athletes representing Western countries were not top-level.
More Questions, More Issues
A British participant, let's call her Shirin, described the situation very aptly. "Why is the British team so weak?' asked Shirin, kindly but uncomprehendingly. "Arsenal, Manchester United, don't they have women's teams?" I tried to explain to her that the female athletes representing Britain were in the Games because they were Muslim; that this tournament was special to them as it was the only opportunity that allowed them to remove their hijab in order to play. Shirin shrugged; she doesn't wear the hijab by choice like British girls do. "I'm ready to play with anyone from any religion,'" she said. "I'd like to have good competition."
A major problem that athletes have repeatedly complained about is the lack of audience. The lack of interest in women's sports, which itself is a problem in the West, is aggravated by the Islamic law of covering the body. Under present circumstances, Muslim female athletes can only be shown in photos or on film wearing the hijab. As a result, women's sports are given little media coverage.
I won't dwell on the dispute about opportunities and problems connected with the Muslim Women's Games, which are closely connected with the discourse on values. Such a discourse would eventually ask whether we have to accept culture-specific values even if they contradict principles like equality, and whether there are universal human rights and, if so, who defines them.
Suffice it to say that Iranian women athletes, coaches, and ordinary girls and women who are taking up sports are taking advantage of the current favorable conditions. They have started demanding more sports facilities, not only in cities but in small towns, as well as the provision of materials and other resources. To the athletes who insist on observing Islamic principles, the Women's Games are the only chance they have for competitions.
This article was first published by SangSaeng, a publication of the Asia-Pacific Center of Education for International Understanding, and is reprinted with permission.
Gertrud Pfister is a professor at the Institute of Exercise and Sport Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.