Sporting headscarves of change
Attitudes and opportunities opening up for Qatar's first generation of female athletes.
Last Modified: 07 Feb 2009 22:38 GMT

The Qatari women's athletics team undergoing media training [AL JAZEERA]

Their head scarves are colourful and not at all traditional; yellow here to match a shirt, white with black arrows there.

Different patterns adorn them all - patterns of change.

A group of teenage girls sit happily chattering on one side of the room, whilst parents, many dressed more conservatively, talk in more earnest tones with the teachers.

Slices of cake and coffee remain untouched on the table.

It may look like a normal parents' evening at school, but these are school holidays and the girls have not seen their families for a week.

This is a training camp in Doha, and the girls are the potential sporting stars of tomorrow.

They are part of the Qatari national women's athletics team which is preparing for an all-girls competition in April against other Gulf countries.

When the taekwondo performing princess Sheikha Maitha Al Maktoum from the United Arab Emirates caused a media sensation at last year’s Olympic games in Beijing, you could be forgiven for thinking her a royal exception.

But as this 15-day training camp and others like it prove, attitudes towards women's sport in the region are rapidly changing.

Mariam Al Ishaq, a team official with the Qatari athletics squad, says she has seen remarkable progress already.

Parents, coaches and athletes pose for a group picture at the training camp [AL JAZEERA]
Changing attitudes

"Now the thinking of Qatari parents is changing, 80% of them are not like before.

"Before if you talked with anybody about women's sport they said: 'oh, what’s women’s sport? It's dangerous. No, how can we leave our daughters alone?'" she remembers. 

"Now everything has changed. Before you couldn't find a father or mother to let their daughter sleep outside the house. Now they are here 15 days in the hotel.

"They know their daughter is safe with us: otherwise they would never let her sleep outside."

Now and then girls can be seen carrying big bags up to their hotel rooms. They are treats from home: "No sweets, I hope!" jokes one of the coaches.

Nutritional education is just one of many lessons here. But the concept is simple; these girls need to learn independence from home - for sports and for life.

Their families are allowed to visit them every Friday, a shock therapy of sorts for some.

"Of course we miss our families," says 100 metre sprinter Nosaiba Ajoub.

"But they also want us to be famous. This is a big chance for us. We train twice a day, morning and afternoon, for our competition in April." 

The previous day the girls received a lecture on how to deal with the media, but despite the highly professional surroundings, women's sport at a competitive level is still very much in its infancy in the Arabian Gulf, according to Tunisian coach Naema Al Amar.

"Here ladies sport is taking its first steps, so you can't compare it to North African countries.

"But at least now you can compare it to other Gulf countries.

Growing popularity

"Two years ago Qatar was very far away in the level of the Gulf, but now they have made a big jump. In the beginning you only had sprinters, but now we have athletes in all disciplines; hurdles, long jump, triple jump, pole vault," she says.

As we spoke, a Gulf basketball competition for girls was taking place across town. Countless other sports have started up women’s sports teams.

"When we first started women's sport in 2000," recounts Ahlam Al Mana, President of the Qatar Women's Sport Association, "there were no sports for women. Now all federations are trying to get girls to participate.

"In each sport they are fighting to see who will be the best: athletics, basketball, and now we even have a football tournament coming up." 

But the encouraging numbers are not limited to competitive sports.

At Sports City, the futuristic complex which hosted many of the sports at the 2006 Asian Games, a ladies club has opened.

Attendance is rising rapidly: 5000 ladies attended fitness classes in the month of January alone.

"The family, and specifically the mother is the first step towards positive thinking in sports," says Gisela Hackfort, the head of the 'Aspire Active' program.

"We also have programs for pregnant ladies, to give them advice on a healthy lifestyle. And they also know that they can come afterwards with their babies to do sports here."

This is a certainly a new approach in a region that until a few years ago frowned on women’s sport: from sporting toddler to sporting star. 

A Qatari female athlete performs in the shot put at the Asian Indoor Championships in Doha, 2008 [AL JAZEERA]
Trail blazing

Nada Zeidan is something like the founding mother of women’s sport in Qatar. Now semi-retired, she raced against prejudices and perceptions with sporting exploits in archery and, perhaps more importantly, male-dominated rally driving.

"When I started sports it was very difficult for women," she told me, taking a break from her work as head nurse at a dental clinic.

"But now I feel that especially after the Asian Games, there has been a big change in mentality. For the new generation I opened the door, now men accept that women too can participate in sports.

"During the Asian Games parents came to me and said: we want our daughter to be like you."

The effect of a steady influx of top class sports events – which culminated temporarily with the Asian Games – has indeed been revolutionary.

With ever new international events arriving in the sports hub of the region, women's sport has been quick to evolve since the arrival of the first female athletes in 1997.

This year sees the first edition of the ladies Tour of Qatar.

"Qatar is a sports state, and so to have a ladies Tour for the first time in the Middle East is a big honour," said Belgian cycling legend Eddie Merckx.

"It’s not like there is no women's sport in Qatar, but now it will further develop it and show that cycling can also be a sport for women." 

Changing fashions

The progress of other ladies sports here can be measured by changing sports attire.

In 2001 the glitzy tennis ladies of the WTA first appeared in Doha, wearing long leggings out of respect for local customs.

What was then seen as rather risky soon evolved into risqué purples dresses like the one worn by French Open Champion Ana Ivanovic at last year’s season ending WTA championships in Doha.

International sportswomen are now universally accepted here, and they are repaying that faith.

"All of us hope we can inspire Qatari girls and ladies to play as well," Ivanovic told me in November.

"I started playing tennis because of Monica Seles. When I'm on the court I'm thinking maybe I can inspire some other young girls. So it's important to be a good role model as well. I really hope we can make a difference."

The effect of such role models has not been limited to one gender.

When Bahraini sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara dashed across television screens at the Olympic Games, men and women across the Arab world feel a sense of pride, says coach Al Amar: "Ruqaya is a symbol and a role model for most Arab countries: not only for women, but also for men."

But one of her athletes, Nada Nabil Abdalla, has an altogether surprising idol. "Usain Bolt" she says with a shy smile. Then she runs off.

You can see the similarities. "In training she copies his style, and she always watches his competitions on television and follows his news on the internet," says Al Amar.

New generation

Nada is part of a new generation of young female athletes taking their first steps into competitive sports across the Gulf. There are many perception-changing athletes in this team – like the two girls of Indian origin who look favourites to win gold for Qatar in April.

"We are some of the first girl's athletes for Qatar, so we will give our best,” says Reema Allen Thomas.

"There are many who want this opportunity, but not all of them get these chances. We train in the best facilities with the best coaches."

Al Amar, who worked with girls in Oman before coming to Qatar, says that while factors such as the depth of talent and support of the government vary across the region, the difficulties remain the same.

"The mentality of the parents is still the biggest difficulty. Sometimes we went to schools to select athletes but they never came to training.

"This is common across the Gulf," she says with a sigh at talents lost, before adding on a hopeful note, "but here in Qatar there is a multi-cultural population, so there is more open-mindedness. Also we have great support here from the government."

That support is helping to tackle concerns which have ranged from simple logistical problems like a lack of girls toilets at some venues, to deeper running issues such as girls being pulled out of sports when they reach a marriageable age.  

This is where simple ideas like parents' evenings have helped.

Al Ishaq believes 95% of Qatari families will let their daughters participate in sports within two years. "Increasingly parents understand how important sport for girls is," she says, "most parents of these teenage girls have finished college, so their mind is opening. This helps us a lot."

Qatari official Mariam Al Ishaq [AL JAZEERA]
Positive future

The official says the progress of the other Gulf countries may even spread across to a country which has not yet been seen at these Gulf women’s competitions.

"One country is still developing slowly in women’s sport – Saudi Arabia – but in the future I think they too will have sports for girls and open more. Kuwait is already open, Bahrain too, Emirates as well, just Saudi we didn't see.

"But I think most women there will soon be ready too." 

First signs of such a move have already been seen.

When Qatari authorities registered 20 local teams for a women’s football tournament here, there were two calls of interest from teams from neighbouring countries: Bahrain – and Saudi Arabia. By next year it could become a regional tournament with Saudi participation.

For now, though, the focus turns to the Gulf athletics competition in April. It may not have much significance outside this region, but for these girls it is a chance to prove to their parents that they have made the right choice.

"My feeling is that the girls want to give something to their country, to the federation, to their parents," Al Ishaq says.

"Because their parents allowed them to come here. If you don’t have good results in the future the parents will say: come on, sit in the house, there is no need to go to sports."

"I think they will give us something special in the future," then with a smile she corrects herself, and says, "they will do something for themselves, not for us."

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