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Qatar embraces female athletes

Qatar’s efforts to promote female athletes is putting pressure on more conservative Saudi Arabia

“The sports culture is not highly present yet for men, let alone for women. That doesn’t mean that women have to wait for men, it just shows that the society needs more maturity in this matter,” said Lulwa Al Ayoub, a professional fencer from Kuwait.

“Society, in general … needs more time to accept the role of sport in their daughters lives as … more than just a hobby and a mere waste of spare time.”

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When Lulwa and her sister Balsam took up fencing in 1995, they couldn’t have imagined where it would take them. Lulwa scored a bronze medal in the Fencing World Cup, and Balsam took home a silver medal in the Asian Games.

The sisters organized the first amateur fencing competition for women in Kuwait, and have also coached and mentored young girls to follow in their footsteps.

Basketball has become a popular sport for young women in Qatar, but that too has its skeptics.

“Having started at a young age playing basketball, I did not face many tribulations. However, it became harder during my high school years as there were restraints from my school not allowing the girls basketball team to travel abroad to participate in tournaments due to ‘religious reasons,’” said Danah Dehdary, a senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. “I also faced some resistance from some family members as they felt that basketball was not going to directly help me with my academics.”

Dehdary’s struggle reflects a larger conflict that Qatari officials have tried to downplay.

“One thing that has been missing from most reports on Qatar is the sense of the struggle within Qatar itself — there are conservative conflicts over alcohol and a few other matters,” Davidson said. “The recently imposed partial alcohol ban is not really a good sign if you’re going to be hosting the World Cup [in 2022]. And it’s not good for tourism in the short-term either.”

“So we get these hints from time to time that the emir is having to balance these different elements within his own country,” Davidson said, adding: “But my sense in Qatar is that the conservatives are not fundamentalists like they are in Saudi Arabia. They are just Qatari citizens who don’t want their country to end up like Dubai.”

With Qatar and its other neighbors pushing for change, it’s doubtful Saudi Arabia will be able to restrict female participation in athletics for much longer.

“Whether or not the Gulf hosts these international events, the change is coming,” said Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher on the Middle East at Human Rights Watch whose report on Saudi restrictions prompted the IOC to push for change.

“The spectacle and the economics of sport and the whole televised imagery of sport has already come to the region with force thanks to Al Jazeera English and other satellite channels with significant sports programming.”