Raha Moharrak was 25 when her parents said it was time for her to marry, but she decided she wasn’t a toaster — as in “Ping! It’s ready” — the Saudi Arabian woman told a U.S. audience recently. “I wasn’t ready.” Nor was she interested in giving up her job, car or independent life in Dubai, or up for the demeaning ritual in which “you get all dolled up, get on stage and dance at a wedding, and wait for some mom to see you and say, ‘She’s good for my son.’”
Instead, Moharrak climbed Mount Everest. There were smaller mountains first, but the indignation already smoldering in her caught fire after she heard a woman talk about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and said she wanted to do it, too. “But you’re Saudi,” someone replied.
She spoke on a panel in Des Moines with other Muslim women athletes from around the world about to embark on RAGBRAI. That’s the annual weeklong bicycle ride across 462 miles of Iowa that draws people from around the world. Moharrak’s father feared she was committing “social suicide” by climbing. But two years ago, when she became the first Saudi woman to scale Everest, she had her parents’ support. “I stood up there,” she said, “for every single woman who was told she couldn’t.”
Too many women around the world are still told they can’t. They’re steered away from sports by family, culture, law or restrictions. In Iran, a woman can be arrested for riding a bicycle, as surfer-snowboarder Mona Seraji was. In Saudi Arabia, schoolgirls receive no physical education. Several governments won’t send female athletes to compete internationally or pay for their participation, and women also aren’t eligible for athletic scholarships to finance their education. Some countries, according to the panelists, even censor stories on women in sports, or deny women the right to watch sporting events. All of this makes it a human rights issue.
Sports are usually described in terms of their artistry and technique, the ticket sales they generate and the cultlike status of their top scorers. But for young women denied basic freedoms of movement, dress and self-determination, sports can also be a ticket to freedom and a form of political resistance.
Mara Gubuan was thinking about the power of example when the 1983 Urbandale (Iowa) High School graduate — who is not Muslim — imagined organizing Muslim women from around the world to ride RAGBRAI. She wanted it to inspire other Muslim girls as well as show Muslim women not as oppressed but as accomplished athletes. In honor of their 50th birthdays, Gubuan and former classmates formed a RAGBRAI team. Through donations to her nonprofit organization, Shirzanan (Persian for female hero), money was raised to bring in Muslim women athletes to ride with them.
Gubuan teamed up with Solmaz Sharif, who became a sports reporter at 17 in Iran. Denied the right to start a women’s sports magazine there, she launched one online after moving to America in 2007. It got 6 million hits in two years. Her organization, Non-Stop Media, is the parent company for this endeavor, which will be the subject of a movie. (Donations are still welcome.)
Some on Team Shirzanan wear makeup and sleeveless dresses and keep their long hair down. Others cover theirs in scarves and have long sleeves. All share a commitment to women’s right to pursue sports on their terms.
Hajar Abulfazl of Afghanistan plays soccer, and though she says most Afghans don’t approve, she sees it as a ticket to world travel. Egyptian Rehab Shawky began riding bicycles in Cairo 10 years ago and said the hostile reactions worsened after the 2011 uprisings. Jordanian Amani Ammoura faced a lot of opposition as a bicycle rider there, but was spotted and invited to compete. Last year she placed third in a 100-kilometer race.
Pakistan’s first female international swimmer, Kiran Khan, was trained by her father, who swam professionally for Pakistan and encouraged her to take up sports to handle her “anger.” But advancing to competitive levels, she found Pakistan didn’t take women’s sports seriously and had neither female coaches nor sponsors for female athletes. After age 12, she says boys and girls weren’t even allowed to swim together in Lahore, where she lives. So she cut her long hair and dressed as a boy. Still, she says, “There’s a new hurdle every day.”
Khan has since built two swimming pools and two gyms for females.
As a child, Soolmaz Abooali watched “American Ninja” on TV and was taken by the U.S. Marine protecting the country through martial arts. So she discovered karate, becoming a 10-time champion. She and her family left Iran as refugees, eventually settling in the United States. She says karate can fortify young people to fight gang recruitment, low self-esteem and negative body image.
Kulsoom Abdullah, a Pakistani champion weightlifter and engineer, lives in Atlanta. She took up the sport to get strong. But she faced hurdles when the U.S. weightlifting organization wouldn’t accept the long-sleeve shirts, pants and hijab she wore instead of a singlet. She learned that as a private organization, it could do that. But after she issued a press release saying she couldn’t compete as a Muslim woman, the weightlifting federation allowed her to represent Pakistan in international competition.
Iranian Seraji surfs in hijab. Introduced to skiing at 8 by her mother, she became a snowboarder. But in 2013 she broke her spine in a ski jumping accident and is now a snowboard instructor. “My goal,” she says of the dearth of female coaches, “is to find a little girl and coach her to the Olympics.”
Bicycle riding was considered immoral for girls in late 19th century America. Today in some countries, athletics are said to be not feminine or too risky or revealing. But the real reason for keeping them away seems to be that they’re too empowering. Once you believe you can master tough physical challenges, you might come to see yourself as the driver of your own fate in all the other ways.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register. Reach her at email@example.com.