The Beijing Olympics starting Friday will showcase the varying degrees to which Muslim countries are warming up to women’s sports. The United Arab Emirates and Oman are sending women for the first time.


AMMAN, Jordan (WOMENSENEWS)–Even before the Beijing Summer Olympics begin on Friday, Habiba Hinai is tasting victory.

For the first time her country is sending a female Olympian to the games. Buthaina Yaqoubi, 16, will compete in the 100-meter dash and either the long jump or the triple jump.

Hinai, one of three women to represent Oman by bearing the Olympic torch during the relay earlier this year, is vice-chair of Oman’s Volleyball Association, the highest position for any woman in the country’s sports scene.

For 18 years she has advocated for the advancement of women’s athletics in her country, seeing it expand from an activity only available in schools in 1993 to the formation of national women’s volleyball, tennis and table tennis teams in 2004.

Now that her country is sending female competitors to the games, Hinai says she can start looking forward to the day when more Muslim women join the International Olympic Committee and Olympic Asian Committee. "That’s the only way to develop sports in the Muslim world."

The 135-member International Olympic Committee, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, has 15 female members. Three are former Olympians from Arab Muslim countries: Morocco’s 1984 track-and-field 400-meter star Nawal El Moutawakel, the first Arab woman to earn a gold medal; Egyptian swimmer Rania Elwani, who competed from 1992 through 2000; and Jordan’s Princess Haya, the first Arab woman to compete in equestrian events.

Nine men from Arab and Muslim countries also serve on the committee, which organizes the games and represents its 205 national members.

Warming Rates Vary

Muslim countries are warming up to women’s Olympics by varying degrees.

North African nations dominate in Muslim women’s representation. Among them, Tunisia is a particular standout, with women competing in track and field, canoeing, fencing, judo, table tennis, tennis, tae kwon do and wrestling.

The 11 women in Morocco’s 38-member delegation include 30-year-old Olympic 800-meter track champion Hasna Ben Hassi. The country’s many promising young competitors include 24-year-old Meriem Alaoui Selsouli, a potential gold medalist in the women’s 5,000-meter event, who faces fierce Ethiopian competition. The country is also sending Khadija Abbouda, the Olympics’ first Moroccan female archer.

Algeria’s female volleyball players, All Africa Games champions, will compete in that sport for the first time. "It’s extraordinary. We can meet the world’s best teams. And we’re setting an example for women’s sport in Algeria," said team captain Marimal Madani. Algerian women will also compete in judo and athletics, where Nahida Touhami will compete in the 1500-meter event.

Jordan’s seven-member delegation includes four women. Among them Nadine Dawani, a tae kwon do competitor, and Zeina Sha’ban, a table tennis champion, have the honor of carrying their nation’s flag in the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.

First Women From Oman and UAE

Among the socially conservative Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates joins Oman in sending its first women to the games. Sheikha Maitha Mohammad Rashed Al-Maktoum, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammad, will compete in tae kwon do. Her cousin and another member of the ruling family, Sheikha Latifa Bint Ahmad Al-Maktoum, will take part in equestrian show jumping.

Muslim Women in Olympic History

1964: Iran sent its first female athlete to Olympics.

1984: Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel became the first Arab woman to win a gold medal when she came in first in the women’s 400 meters at the Los Angeles Games. She is now minister of sports.

1992: Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria won a gold medal in 1,500-meter race. She often trained in Europe after being castigated in her own country for competing in a vest and shorts. That same year Susi Susanti became the first Olympic athlete to win a gold medal in badminton for Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

2000: Jordan’s Princess Haya, the sister of King Abdullah, became the first female Arab flag-bearer at an Olympic Games, the first and only Arab woman to compete in equestrian events and the first member of an Arab royal family to compete in the Olympics. In 2006, she became the first Arab woman to lead an international sports federation when she was elected president of the International Equestrian Federation.

2004: Women from Iran won medals in pistol shooting. That year Afghanistan–which had ended Taliban rule only three years earlier–sent two female athletes to compete; one in track and field and one in judo. Bahrain sent Ruqaya Al-Ghasra as their first-ever female competitor.

2008: Nawal El Moutawakel of Morocco was elected for a seat on the powerful 15-member International Olympic Committee Executive Board, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the Olympic movement and the first female from a Muslim nation on the rule-making body. El Moutawakel was the first woman from a Muslim country on the IOC when she was inducted in 1998. She was the first woman from a predominantly Muslim nation to win an Olympic medal when she took gold in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Iran, Pakistan and Bahrain, which usually have predominantly male delegations, are sending a limited number of women.

Iran’s 53 athletes include three women, who will compete in rowing, archery and tae kwon do.

Two women are among Pakistan’s 21 athletes. They are 22-year-old Sadaf Siddiqui running the 100-meter dash and 18-year-old swimmer Kiran Khan. Pakistan first sent female athletes to the games in 1996.

Bahrain is also sending two women, including Ruqaya Al-Ghasra, 24, who won the 200-meter event at the 2006 Doha Asian Games and the 100-meter dash at the 11th Pan-Arab Games in 2007. She has qualified for both the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter races in Beijing. Her countrywoman, Maryam Yusuf Jamal, will compete in the 800-meter.

Iraq has one female sprinter, Dana Hussein, 21, among its four qualifiers.

Somalia’s Samiyo Yusuf will run in the 400-meter and 800-meter events as the only female athlete representing the war-torn nation.

Brunei and Saudi Arabia will not be sending any women. Both countries bar women’s sports for "cultural and religious reasons" and do not allow women to participate in the Olympics.

Qatar and Kuwait will also not be sending any women to Beijing. Both countries allow women’s sports, but are opting to send male athletes with what they consider better competitive chances.

Post-Barcelona Push

Women’s participation in the Olympics has been a particularly sensitive subject since 1992.

That year, 35 countries–half of them Muslim–sent no female athletes to the Barcelona Games.

To lower those numbers two French advocates, Annie Sugier and Linda Weil-Curiel, founded a group called Atlanta Plus to work on requiring countries to include women in their Olympic delegations.

Weil-Curiel, a lawyer, says all-male delegations contravene the Olympic charter’s prohibition against all forms of discrimination. She has been lobbying the International Olympic Committee for years to impose sanctions on nations that bar women from competing.

Based in Paris, her organization now calls itself Atlanta-Sydney-Athens Plus and can happily point to the shrinking supply of all-male delegations.

Thirty-five all-male Olympic teams competed in Barcelona in 1992 compared to 26 in Atlanta in 1996, 10 in Sydney in 2000 and five in Athens 2004. There are at least four all-male delegations sent to Beijing, but a tally is not yet available.

Women came closer to parity during 2004 when they competed in 135 events and represented 44 percent of all participants.

Sports officials in Arab countries contend that women’s limited participation is not restricted to their countries and point to the limited number of women in the International Olympic Committee’s decision-making bodies.

In March 2008, during the fourth International Olympic Committee conference on women and sports, held in Jordan, 600 participants endorsed the Dead Sea Plan of Action. It calls for gender equality in national teams, their leadership and technicians, and also encourages female sports reporters to actively cover the events. Attendees included the world’s top sporting officials, including International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, many Olympic medalists and King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Women were barred from competing in the first modern games in 1896 but four years later they were permitted to participate in the "ladylike" sports of tennis, golf and croquet.

In Beijing, female athletes will compete in nearly every Olympic sport, including wrestling, which was opened to women for the first time at the Athens Games. The Japanese are expected to be the dominant force with the Americans, Bulgarians and Chinese expected to pose a threat in their quest for Olympic gold.

Aline Bannayan is a reporter and editor based in Amman, Jordan. A former national basketball team player, she has covered sports for the Jordan Times as well as the AP in Amman since 1991.

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