The 20th century has yielded new and expanding arguments for increasing sports opportunities for women and girls. From Title IX to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the importance of women’s access to sports has received a great deal of attention from academia, the media, and the non-profit circuit. While I agree that women should have access, and that our opportunities lag far behind those of men, I do not agree with the social and political promises of change made by some of these programs.

Sport Threatens Traditional Values

The debates around Title IX and other initiatives spawned vociferous arguments that if nations developed infrastructure and provided monetary support for girls to play soccer, rowing, basketball, or any number of other sports, these women would see social and cultural improvements in their lives. These improvements were not limited to health but extended to gender stereotyping, self confidence, and the ability to resist traditional gender-based restrictions. A 2006 report from The International Working Group on Women in Sports states that expanding sports opportunities to women will “help women and girls overcome social and personal barriers...”[1]

Some arguments have placed particular emphasis on Muslim countries, where women have often struggled against traditional restrictions. Leila Sfeir traces these developments in her paper “The Status of Muslim Women in Sport: Conflict between Cultural Tradition and Modernization.”[2] While she states that traditional customs such as veiling and “early marriage and household responsibilities” contribute to “blocking women’s opportunities in sport,”[3] leading to fewer opportunities for Muslim women to compete at elite levels, she automatically assumes that sport is “a major innovative force and a serious threat to traditional values.”[4]

This kind of rhetoric creates the subtext for a larger liberation that may not actually exist. Sport, broadly defined, is not neutral and will be subordinated to stronger and more longstanding cultural norms. While sport indisputably carries benefits for both genders, one cannot expect that the introduction of opportunities for women to play sports will threaten traditional values, improve gender equity, or lead to more social freedoms for women or increased participation in the public sphere in the long term. The United Nations (UN) Sport Development and Peace website says of its Sport for Development and Peace programs that “The positive potential of sport does not develop automatically...”[5] Gender-based cultural practices are often stronger than this “positive potential,” and change, positive or negative, will not be linear.

Competition Ends with Marriage

I developed this theory after conversations I had with a Muslim woman wrestler while I was in Baku, Azerbaijan competing at the 2007 Freestyle Wrestling World Championships. During the pre-tournament training days, I trained with women from many different countries, but Tunisian wrestler Mariam and I had a language in common (French). I asked her to tell me about herself. Mariam spoke to me about her life and aspirations. I have changed her name to protect her identity.

Mariam was young - about twenty years old - and had reached the elite level of sport through hard training with her national team. Mariam said she loved wrestling, which she found to be a very energizing sport, and didn’t mind wearing skintight singlets or training with male coaches. As Olympic hopefuls, she and I shared the same dreams and aspirations, and both of us knew that years of hard work lay ahead if we were to achieve those dreams.

She had followed her older sister’s footsteps in entering the sport. Her sister had competed for some years, but at age twenty-six married and stopped wrestling. I said it was a shame that she stopped competing and asked Mariam if her sister missed it. Mariam told me that her sister was happy she had married and quit sports, and had become a devout Muslim. Her sister prayed and covered her hair. Mariam hoped to follow in her footsteps.

Was Mariam’s family upset that Mariam herself did not give up wrestling? Did they want her also to marry and stop wearing singlets in public? Mariam replied that they were not upset, and wanted her to enjoy her youth before she too was married and became religious. Mariam knew it took a lot of strength to be a devout Muslim and hoped she would have the fortitude when the time came to begin her religious life away from the sport - because as she saw it, it was only a matter of time.

Mariam’s aspirations to religious life easily trumped her athletic aspirations. If she does quit wrestling in the next few years, she will not likely achieve her athletic goals and will retreat substantially from the public eye. Few twenty-year-olds earn world medals; it takes years to condition and weather an athlete. Women in every culture have forgone or delayed marriage in order to have many unbroken years of training. Most athletes only hope for a World or Olympic medal.

Why would a young woman who aspires to a religious life participate in a sport in which she cannot cover up and which puts her centrally in the public sphere? And why would she aspire to elite levels if she knew she could not continue past a certain age? The way Mariam saw it, the athletic stage of her life was naturally limited and short. The sport will undoubtedly make a mark on her health and fitness, and perhaps on her worldliness and experience, but it would seem to have made no difference in her conformity with her society’s expectations. While sports liberationists would argue that the sport should have emancipated her from the confines of her religion and culture, the culture of her parents and their parents will ultimately trump the temporary freedom of her wrestling career.

The Need for Further Study

Further study is required to examine the persistent dominance of religious-cultural gender identities over secular athletic identities, especially in male-dominated sports. Was it an act of cultural defiance for Mariam to choose a wrestling career in the international spotlight, grappling in the presence of male coaches and spectators? She seems reconciled with her future, having already fixed it in her mind. Is it possible that later on, she will reject passive religious womanhood or parts of it? Was she playing out the female apologetic[6] by reassuring me that she would eventually make herself fit the standard female mold?

Mariam’s inner motivations notwithstanding, my conversation with her affirms that a sport such as wrestling, perceived as overly masculine, unsuitable for women, and irreligious, can be practiced alongside deeply rooted religious traditions. It can coexist with traditional conceptions of femininity and family without undermining them or causing women to challenge their traditional roles or take on male roles in the community. This should assuage the fears of some Muslim critics who have argued that allowing women to become athletes will damage their religiosity and femininity.

At the same time, a formal academic study of the compatibility or conflict between the “sporting woman” with the “religious, married female,” could uncover their points of commonality. So far, these identities have been seen as only conflicting, and a large-scale, detailed qualitative study is necessary to outline a more complex interaction. I believe sport can, and does, change women’s lives for the better, but the twin powers of culture and religion can mitigate change.

Such a study could assist those planning “rescue by sport” to design more effective projects. But more importantly, it may transform the field on a deeper level by exposing the complex ways that women integrate their athletic experience and by bringing a large body of real athletes’ experiences into the literature. By studying religious women’s orientation toward athletic achievement, we can question the assumed connection between “masculine” sports and the rejection of conventional femininity, expanding all assumptions made by scholars about women, sports, and tradition.

 


[1]. Sheila Robertson, “From Montreal to Kumamoto — Women and Sport Progress Report 2002-2006,” International Working Group on Women and Sport, March 30, 2010, http://www.iwg-gti.org/uploads/media/From_Montreal_to_Kumamoto_e.pdf.

[2]. Leila Sfeir, “The Status of Muslim Women in Sport: Conflict between Cultural Tradition and Modernization,” International Review for Sociology of Sport, Vol 20, No. 4 (1985), pp. 283-304.

[3]. Leila Sfeir, “The Status of Muslim Women in Sport: Conflict between Cultural Tradition and Modernization,” pp. 298, 296.

[4]. Leila Sfeir, “The Status of Muslim Women in Sport: Conflict between Cultural Tradition and Modernization,” p. 301.

[5]. United Nations, “Why Sport?” United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace, March 28, 2010, http://www.un.org/wcm/content/site/sport/cache/offonce/home/sport;jsess….

[6]. The “female apologetic” is an overt display of femininity or heterosexuality in an attempt to counter stereotypes of masculinity.