Muslim women in sport  

By Barbara Black

Muslim women who are keen on sports may exercise their passion as freely as other athletes, or they may not even be able to watch men play. It has more to do with which country they live in than their religion.

That was the conclusion left by a symposium called The Role of Sport in Resisting and Accommodating and in Remaking Muslim Women, which drew a small audience to the Hall Building’s seventh-floor dining room on March 28.

Concordia anthropologist Homa Hoodfar presented a paper on the Muslim Women's Olympics, which was held in Tehran in 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2005 with enthusiastic participation; in the most recent edition, the women came from nearly 40 countries. The alternative games were launched by a combination of athletes and those we would call feminists, women determined to regain a presence in public life that was lost in the 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When Iran’s soccer team beat the U.S. team in the 1998 World Cup series, the nation was ecstatic. Football, always a passion, became a focus of fierce national pride. Yet in Iran’s theocratic regime, women can’t even attend men’s games.

Nasrin Afzali, from the University of Tehran, said that as far as the mullahs are concerned, the gaze of women on men’s bodies appears to be just as dangerous as the reverse.

She described some of the subterfuges young women use to get into the ironically named Freedom Stadium to watch their brothers play and contest their exclusion from a major public venue. Girls have dressed as boys, a ploy so notorious that it became the plot of an Iranian movie.

Yoav Di-Capua, a scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, was unable to get to Concordia in person, but his paper, read on his behalf, told an entertaining story about an Egyptian aviatrix, as they used to be called.

Lutifa al-Nadi was the daughter of an effendi (upper-class) family in the 1930s. Egypt was run by the British then, and throughout Europe and the Americas, flying was all the rage. In fact, aviation was the pinnacle of technology, and embodied all that was dashing, modern, European and male — all that symbolically justified the colonization of Egypt.

Fascinated by the new sport, Lutifa hung out at Cairo’s elite aviation club, taking flying lessons on the sly and volunteering on the club’s telephone switchboard to disguise her real intentions. When an intercity race between Cairo and Alexandria took place, guess who came first? Lutifa emerged from the cockpit, her face wreathed in smiles, and was mobbed by adoring fans of both sexes.

Two other papers presented at the symposium looked at Muslim women and sport.

Hana Askren is an award-winning wrestler and a Concordia PhD candidate. She reminded the audience that not so long ago, football was closed to women in the West. In many European countries and for members of the national women’s baseball team in the United States, players were required to wear makeup on the field, presumably to reassure spectators that they were real women. Sociologists call this “feminine apologetics”.

Martha Saavedra, of the University of California at Berkeley, has compiled data on women and sport in Senegal, Sudan and Nigeria.

She found that the restrictions justified by religion and culture vary in these countries, and even in the regions within them. They appear to have more to do with the political and ideological context than with the way people understand their religion.


Concordia University