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Hurdles Are Their Best Event

Muslim women in the Olympic Games have overcome obstacles few Western female athletes can imagine. But the race is far from won.

August 18, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Robina Muqimyar began her track and field training for the 2004 Olympics running on the cracked concrete of the stadium where Afghanistan's Taliban regime had executed scores of people, sometimes hanging their bodies on soccer goal posts.

It was the first time she had run outdoors. And it was just a year ago.

As an Afghan woman, Muqimyar wasn't allowed to emerge from her home under the rule of the Taliban, which was ousted after a U.S. invasion in 2001. Today, she is one of a growing number of Muslim women participating in a wide range of sports at the highest level in the world -- an arena long denied them by poverty and religious or cultural oppression.

A record number of Muslim women are representing their countries this year in Athens, nearly every one of them overcoming unimaginable hardships. Some endure death threats for exposing their legs to foreign men; others prepare for this day without the mats, shoes or other equipment that would be standard in any U.S. or European elementary school, much less the gymnasiums that produce world-class competitors.

And many of the women struggle to find ways to balance their desire to obey Islam's requirements for modesty with the ability to maintain a competitive edge. In contrast to perceptions in the West, many say their societies wholeheartedly encourage their participation in sports.

Muqimyar, 18, and teammate Friba Razayee, 18, are making history here. When Razayee steps onto the judo mat today, she will become the first woman ever to compete on behalf of Afghanistan. Muqimyar follows suit Friday in the 100-meter race.

"It is an enormous honor to represent Afghani women in the Olympics for the first time," Razayee said. "I don't care if I don't get any medals. Medals aren't important. Just attending the Olympics is a gold medal for me."

Both women said they were able to reconcile being good Muslims with their activities, even though radical imams at home have condemned them. Muqimyar, for example, competes in long pants, in contrast to the short, tight briefs worn these days by many sprinters.

They are also adapting. In a meeting with journalists this week, both women wore short sleeves, and Razayee's cropped, red-tinted hair and Muqimyar's long, dark curls were uncovered, although their requisite ID badges showed them photographed in head scarves.

Egypt, an Islamic but secular country, boasts 15 women in its 96-member delegation. For the first time, an Egyptian woman has qualified for Olympic rowing. Doaa Moussa Alazab practiced on the Nile -- and she rows wearing long pants, long sleeves and a hijab, as the head scarf is known. "I think I can be a model for religious girls in sports, inshallah," she said, ending with the refrain heard frequently in the Muslim world -- "God willing."

Activists and other athletes say that although women's participation has grown, the struggle continues. Countries such as Saudi Arabia continue to exclude women from their Olympic delegation, in practice if not in policy.

And many may remember the ordeal of Hassiba Boulmerka, an Algerian runner who captured her country's first-ever gold in 1992, in the 1,500-meter race, only to be condemned at home for "running with naked legs" before thousands of men. She was forced into exile in Italy.

"There are a good number of women participating," said Annie Sugier, co-founder of the group Atlanta-Sydney-Athens Committee, which lobbies in behalf of female athletes in the Olympics. "The main problem is the delegations that exclude women, institutional segregation and more subtle kinds of discrimination."

Sugier's group calculated that about 35 countries had no women in their Olympic delegations in the 1992 games in Barcelona; this year, four or five don't. Many, however, confine the women to certain sports, such as shooting (where several Iranian women have competed in recent years, in full head-to-toe chador). About 40% of the estimated 10,500 athletes competing in Athens are women.

The International Olympic Committee does not track the religions of athletes, so it is impossible to say exactly how many Muslim women are in this year's Games. Journalists have counted about 50, more than in any previous Olympiad.

To Sugier's dismay, the IOC has not confronted countries such as Saudi Arabia. Committee spokeswoman Giselle Davis said the IOC encourages women everywhere to get involved in sports.

In much of the Islamic world, fundamentalism is on the rise, which could thwart the success of women in athletics.

The Koran, the sacred book of Islam, counsels physical fitness for men and women alike. The prophet Muhammad is said to have challenged his wife, Aisha, to a foot race, and lost. (He reportedly won the rematch.)

But in conservative circles, the mixing of the sexes, the skimpy clothing, and the physical contact and exhibitionism of championship sports are frowned upon if not outright prohibited.

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