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COLUMN ONE

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

Alazab, the Egyptian rower, said she had found a compromise. She eschewed "violent" specialties involving physical contact, such as judo and wrestling, yet chose an endeavor that required enormous physical strength. The 22-year-old daughter of an Egyptian army general said she doesn't believe her clothing hurts her competitiveness.

Alazab said she had come under considerable pressure from Egyptian Olympic officials to shed the hijab. (Egypt is keen to show itself as a secular, modern state.) She refused.

"I'd rather be out of the Olympics than dress modern," said the physical education major.

A few years ago, Egypt enacted a law requiring sports clubs to include women in order to be eligible for national competition.

That and the popularity of championship swimmer Rania Elwany have drawn more Egyptian girls and women into sports, said Khaled Youssef, who trains Alazab and also coaches at Colgate University in New York.

Mounir Sabet, president of the Egyptian Olympic Committee and Egypt's IOC representative, said he was pleased with the growing participation but said retaining women remained a problem.

"When the woman wants to get engaged and married, she drops sports," Sabet said. "It's something in our genes. They start having babies and forget everything but their home and family."

Pakistan has for the first time sent a female swimmer to the Olympics: 13-year-old Rubab Raza.

Although the long bodysuit that is the current uniform of most Olympic swimmers gives her some degree of modesty, even that has been controversial.

Rubab's trainer would not allow her to interrupt training for an interview before her 50-meter freestyle event Saturday. But she and her family have told reporters in her native Punjab that she has faced ridicule and scorn, as well as admiration. Her mother suggested that part of the reason Rubab can swim in public is her age; once she passes puberty, it will be more difficult.

Rubab is one of two women in the 43-member Pakistani delegation. The other is a runner.

For the lone woman in the small Palestinian delegation, poverty more than prejudice threw obstacles in her path to the Games. To train, Sanna Abubkheet, 19, has been running on the seashore of the Gaza Strip, near her home in Deir al Balah, sometimes wearing beat-up shoes but most often going barefoot.

"The sand is good for building muscles," she said. "We have no playgrounds, no track, no playing fields."

Abubkheet has ebony skin, arched eyebrows and a beautiful face. Tall and thin, she looks like a model. Modesty is not an issue for her, she said, adding that she rarely covers her hair in Gaza, where she and her six brothers and sisters live on the $200-a-month pension of her father, a retired police officer.

Abubkheet carried the Palestinian flag in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, flashing the victory sign as she strode in to loud applause. Delegation officials said she was chosen as flag bearer because of her gender.

Another Muslim woman who beat the odds to step onto the Olympic stage is Ala Hikmat, part of the 44-member Iraqi team that emerged from war and chaos to compete here.

Hikmat came to Athens from a poor district of Baghdad, where her widowed mother, a runner in her own youth, urged her to defy convention and compete in school track and field meets.

The 19-year-old Iraqi, also the only woman in her delegation, will compete in the 100-meter race. At home, she trained at Baghdad's dusty Kashafa Stadium in the punishing heat of summer in conservative clothing: long black sweatpants and a loose, tunic-like T-shirt. Her track shoes were knockoff Nikes, bought for what was for her the princely sum of $20.

The packed-dirt track had no starting blocks, just a couple of holes gouged in the ground. Several times a week, she worked out with weights at an all-male gym, where at first she was the object of stares and derision.

"Some people said I looked like a boy -- I ignored them," she said in a recent interview in Baghdad. At her simple concrete home, where a single electric fan stirred the oven-like air, she expressed determination to succeed.

"I want to make my country proud, and my family proud," she said. "And myself too. I am certain I have not reached my full potential -- I haven't had the training that would allow me to succeed. But it is my dream to be the best athlete I can be."

For Muqimyar, living in Afghanistan under the Taliban, sports -- much less the Olympics -- were unknown to her.

Afghanistan was suspended from the Olympic movement in 1999 because of the Taliban's policy of forbidding women to work and go to school. These Games mark the nation's return.

The Taliban is officially gone, but fundamentalists still menace much of the country. Muqimyar and Razayee say they must train in a gym with hard concrete floors, or at the stadium that served as the Taliban execution grounds.

"I want all Afghan women to know they can come out now," Muqimyar said. "I'm one that is opening their way to the world of sports and to the world."

Times staff writer Laura King, recently on assignment in Baghdad, and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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