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Sporting chance: Iraqi women struggle for a level playing field

By Suha Audah, Special for CNN
updated 12:15 AM EDT, Fri June 7, 2013
Rising to the challenge: A member of Iraq's first national female weightlifting team.
Rising to the challenge: A member of Iraq's first national female weightlifting team.
  • Women in Mosul, northern Iraq, must practice sports behind closed, locked doors
  • Many men and women disapprove of women in sport and are against mixed gender training
  • Situation is different outside of Mosul where there is a more positive view of women in sport
  • Some use wearing of hijab as excuse to say women cannot compete effectively in sports

Editor's note: Suha Audah is a freelance journalist living and working in Mosul, Iraq. This is a translated and edited version of a piece that won a contest run by the UN that sought to highlight the challenges faced by women living in Middle Eastern countries.

(CNN) -- Filing nervously into a sports hall in Mosul, northern Iraq, around 20 girls prepared to practice gymnastics. Compared to their male counterparts at Mosul University's Faculty of Sport, their number is small. Another difference is that the gates to the sports hall were locked behind them and an announcement made that the hall was exclusively allocated for women.

Liqaa Abdul Muttalib, a rhythmic gymnastics trainer says the facilities are not ideal: "There are pillars in the hall which limit free movement and rotational flips. This hall was initially designed for physical fitness."

Behind another locked gate Ammar Shihab was coaching the university's recently formed five-a-side female football team.

"Women's participation has shrunk following the 2003 events," said Shihab. "However, this did not prevent women from exercising and participating in sports tournaments. Our women's football team took part in the tournament that took place in Syria in 2010."

I don't pay attention to society's views because my sole wish is to learn and improve my athletic skills.
Duaa Sabhan

On the separation between the two genders in sports Shihab thinks "it is a right step for both of them at the present time."

It seems that the way society views women in Mosul and much of the surrounding Nineveh province is reflected in the attitude towards women's participation in sports.

Some believe that it's inappropriate, like Nihad Mohamed Qais, is a 22-year-old student.

"I don't like women's participation in sports. It is not a civilized phenomenon. Therefore, I will not allow my sister or a female relative to participate in sports or to join an athletic club or faculty," he said.

"What makes me reject the idea is what I heard about the presence of boys and girls together, in addition to the presence of male coaches. I also do not like the idea of women wearing sports uniforms."

While the majority of men in Mosul do not agree with women's participation in sports, some women support it. One of them is 20 year old Dhikra.

"I do encourage women's engagement in sports, provided that they do their exercises in the absence of men so that they will feel at ease, at least with regard to wearing the sports uniform," she said.

My male and female colleagues do not know about me playing football because they do not welcome the idea.
Riyam Ali

"I believe that religious considerations are the main reason behind the families' objections to their daughters joining faculties of sport."

Khalid Abdul Majeed is Deputy Representative of the Olympic Committee in Nineveh. He also believes that family disapproval and social conditions prevent more women participating in sport, as well as more of them wearing hijab (head scarves)

"We have a female volleyball team which ranks second in Iraq," said Majeed. "However, all the teams are found in Nineveh Plain because of the better security situation in the area as well as the positive social views about female athletes, which is almost free of perceptions of inferiority."

Duaa Sabhan, 22, a talented and enthusiastic athlete, said that wearing the hijab did not prevent her from taking part in sports.

"I do not support the present separation between us and our male colleagues," she said. "There is nothing that prevents me from exercising with them. I don't pay attention to society's views because my sole wish is to learn and improve my athletic skills. My father often encourages me to get rid of the state of social shyness."

When society constitutes a barrier, parents may support their daughters and lead them towards success and allow them to travel and participate in athletic contests. But the case of Sabhan is quite different from that of Riyam Ali who plays on the five-a-side football team.

"My family did not allow me to join the Faculty of Physical Education," she said. "Therefore, at the end of the day, when my lectures finish, I join the team to attend training drills and exercises. Of course my male and female colleagues do not know about my coming here because they do not welcome the idea."

In Iraq religion has its say concerning women's involvement in sport and taking part in contests.

"Women's sport nowadays is a cause for molestation of women, particularly the sports that are covered by media and broadcast to the public," said Skeikh Ahmed Ghanim, imam and preacher at the Islamic Awakening Mosque and a member of Iraq's Scholars Association in Nineveh.

"The aim of this is merely to export women to the West. However, women may exercise and do their drills inside confined halls, separately from men, while wearing their legal dresses."

"The limited role of women in the athletic field in terms of winning medals, good results, flags and participation does not constitute any risk to the country, and female athletes winning medals and cups is not an achievement for the country and does not contribute to its development," Sheikh Ghanim added.

Religious and social views are almost the same and seem to have contributed to the difficulties many women find in joining in sports in Iraq.

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