In his second column on the IPC Athletics World Championships, Stuart Weir wrote a piece on Muslim women and sports. He featured Thuraya al Zaabi, who competes in the shot put and javelin.
Thuraya al Zaabi is one of the faces of the 2015 IPC World Athletics Championships. She made history when she became the first female to represent the United Arab Emirates at a Paralympic Games in Beijing 2008. She was chosen by the IPC as one of four athletes to be profiled in film on their website.
Thuraya took up para-athletics following a stroke at the age of 29, which paralysed her down the left side of her body. Speaking in her film, she said:
"It was my physical situation that led me to take up para-athletics. It is very difficult and requires greater effort but that shouldn't stop us from riding this wave and demonstrating that para-athletes can overcome their disability, excel and take para-athletics to a higher level. Sport to me is hope. It is giving. It renewed my weak muscles and also moved me from a state of reclusiveness and depression to a state of hope, determination and a perpetual smile."
The number of women participants is biggest ever, 38% up on last time but there remain issues for Moslem women. A study* of the issue listed a number of factors which make participation in sport difficult for them:
• Islamic cultures have not attached any importance to modern sport;
• The dearth of sporting infrastructure in Islamic countries (ie lack of training facilities and financial support);
• Having to compete in the hijab;
• Attacks from Islamists;
• Conflicts with families;
• Society's expectations that women do no more than finish school, marry and start a family;
• Perceptions that participation in sport may affect the respectability of women and the honour of their families;
The author quotes the respected Moslem sports scientist, Leila Sfeir, who argues that: "Islamic religion in no way tries to depreciate, much less deny sport for women. On the contrary, it attributes great significance and function to physical strength and sport activities. Islam has a constant concern with one's body, cleanliness, purification and force, with segregation of the sexes".
The article also suggests that a major issue is the social pressure of men simply not wanting their wives, daughters, sisters to participate in sport. Perhaps as more role models like Thuraya al Zaabi emerge, it will become easier for Moslem women to be part of events like this.
Today was not Thuraya's greatest day. She only managed one legal shot put and finished 8th, with a put that was 1.5 metres short of her PB. Yet perhaps today there were bigger things at stake that personal performance. And she still has the javelin to come.
*Outsiders: Muslim Women and Olympic Games - barriers and Opportunities, Gertrud Pfister in Olympic Aspirations Realised and Unrealised, Edited by J.A, Mangan and Mark Dyreson, London: Routledge 2012. ISBN 978-1-138-85366