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Arab women athletes are changing the game, but hurdles remain
Arab women are making history in sports and opening doors for a new generation of athletes.
The most striking sporting photographs of the past 12 months – that of Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur at Wimbledon and the US Open – felt like a metaphor for women’s sport in Arab countries: standing tall and proud, ready to take the fight.
Jabeur, ranked No. 2 in the world in women’s tennis, had a stellar record in 2022 – she reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open.
And she’s not the only Arab woman athlete in the spotlight.
“The importance of highlighting and sharing stories of women, working and participating in all aspects of the sport – from community sports to professional sports — is crucial to increasing their participation,” says Dawn Barnable, co-founder of The Mettleset, an online community dedicated to sharing stories of sports.
She adds that one needs to see the explosion of cycling, running, triathlons, and various sporting events across the region to know that both women and men are participating in and following sports in unprecedented numbers.
Here’s the thing: getting more girls and young women not to lose their love of sport and exercise must be a central part of the jigsaw if women’s sport is to continue to grow and thrive. And the good news is that in the last few years, in Arab countries, there’s been a sense of tectonic plates being shifted — Saudi women’s participation in sports has increased by over 150% — although a deep-rooted gender stereotype still exists.
“The situation in Arab countries is tough. However, some women are breaking barriers by entering a field often reserved for men,” said UAE Olympic rower Reem Ahmed Al Hassani.
In the 2012 London Olympics, for the first time, Saudi Arabia sent two female athletes to compete — Sarah Attar in the 800m and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in the judo competition.
Female athletes from Qatar — Nada Arkaji, Aya Magdy, and Noor al-Malk — also participated for the first time, taking the overall number of female athletes from Gulf countries to 31.
Since then, an increasing number of sportswomen have been carrying the flags of their countries at international events.
Women’s sport in Saudi Arabia reached a new milestone this week as the kingdom sent their first female team to an International Tennis Federation (ITF) event – the Asia/Oceania pre-qualifying event of Billie Jean King Cup Juniors in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
“This is an amazing experience, and it is so empowering,” Saudi Arabia captain Areej Farah told ITF. “Watching doors open for our young Saudi female athletes is just beyond exciting.”
Doaa Elghobashy has been training to help Egypt qualify for the 2024 Paris Games in beach volleyball. She and her teammate competed in Beach volleyball at the Olympics in 2016.
But the path to success is no cakewalk. Apart from self-belief and body image concerns that many girls struggle with, they’re being failed due to inadequate opportunities.
“Growing up, I faced societal and cultural barriers and had limited access to resources and facilities. Besides, there was a huge lack of recognition for women’s football in the country,” says Emirati footballer Areej Al Hammadi.
“Back then, there weren’t any female football clubs or academies. So, I used to play with my brothers and cousins whenever I could. This kept my passion alive,” adds Al Hammadi.
Meanwhile, Al Hassani says her journey in sports started in 2017 at Abu Dhabi’s Sailing and Yacht Club. “I devoted all my time to rowing until I got the title of the UAE Olympic rowing champion. After that, I became a coach at the Abu Dhabi Sailing and Yacht Club. I won over 60 gold, silver, and bronze sports medals,” she said.
FUNDING AND SPONSORSHIP
Although government investments in sports in the region are increasing, and there’s improvement in sports infrastructure, Barnable says there’s room for improvement when it comes to private sector funding and sponsorships in women’s sports.
“Many of the athletes we speak to cite challenges in securing sponsorship which, given the immense grassroots groundswell of support for women in sports, seems to show a huge disconnect on the part of brands.”
Given the growth opportunities, talent, and compelling stories behind the talent, women’s sports are among the best investments. This is not only due to the massive growth potential but also because brands and supporters can become an intrinsic part of the story of women’s sports and individual athletes. Investing in women’s sports is good business, adds Barnable.
ASPIRING YOUNG WOMEN
Al Hammadi and Al Hassani admit they had solid backing from their families, despite the limited opportunities for female athletes.
But sport isn’t just winning medals: it breaks down barriers, helps in life skills, and motivates people to do other things. These women inspire the aspiring girls of the region.
Raha Moharrak, who became the first Saudi woman to conquer Mount Everest in 2013, is paving the way for others to challenge social perceptions of what women can achieve. Mona Shahab, another mountaineer, is using mountaineering to raise breast cancer awareness.
Al Hammadi intends to use her platform to promote more funding and support for women’s football in the UAE. “I want to collaborate with neighborhood groups and organizations to give young female athletes training and mentoring opportunities. By doing this, I hope to dismantle obstacles and develop a more welcoming and egalitarian atmosphere for female football players in the UAE,” she said.
And Al Hammadi is not alone. Three-time Egyptian Olympian Aya Medany is working to increase gender equality in sports.
Olympic weightlifter Amna Al Haddad believes that Arab women have carved a niche for themselves in sports achieved because of their grit and determination. “While we have a long way to go when it comes to equal pay or infrastructure, a cultural shift will help bridge the gap and pave the way for a better future in sports,” she said.
Al Hassani says young girls must arm themselves with knowledge and self-improvement is the best way to keep up with the advancement and technical development. “Failure need not be the end of life; rather, it may be the start of another road to success.”