The Sports World Gets a Little Bit Friendlier for Female Muslim Athletes

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Slow but important progress for the right of Muslim women to participate in international sports.

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Members of the Iranian women's national soccer team react on learning that they've been forced to withdraw from a qualifying match for the 2012 Olympics / Reuters

Sports have become another arena--literally--for the struggle over women's rights in Islamic societies. Two recent developments suggest progress in allowing women to participate more fully. First, soccer's top rule-making body last month reversed a ban on female players wearing headscarves. The ban attracted significant attention last year when the Iranian women's soccer team, whose players wore headscarves, was disqualified from a match against Jordan. The disqualification dashed the team's hopes of appearing in this summer's London Olympics.

Other Muslim female athletes, though, have a better chance of competing in London because of the second development: apparent decisions by Brunei and Saudi Arabia to send their first-ever female athletes to the Olympics. (Qatar has never fielded a female Olympian either.) According to the International Herald Tribune, Brunei has formally nominated Maziah Mahusin, a sprinter, for the games. Meanwhile, Prince Nayef, the crown prince and likely future king of Saudi Arabia, this week agreed to allow Saudi women to compete in "sports that suit the nature and decency of women and don't conflict with Islamic law teachings," according to Bloomberg. The New York Times reports that equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas is a possible candidate for the Saudi team.

The moves by the soccer authorities and the Saudi government are driven by a combination of outside pressure, regional upheaval, women's demands, and support--or at least acquiescence--from within the Islamic world. As for pressure, Human Rights Watch released a report last month that forcefully criticizes "an effective ban on women's participation in national competitive sports" in Saudi Arabia. The report notes a shortage of physical education classes for girls and scant opportunities for women to compete in individual or team sports, whether informally within the Kingdom or in an official capacity abroad. It points out that Saudi Arabia lags behind even Brunei and Qatar since, unlike those countries, it has never sent female athletes to any regional or international competition.

Prince Nayef is not driving the effort to send Saudi women to the Olympics, but he appears to be allowing it. He is often seen as a hardliner and maintains close relationships with religious conservatives. Indeed, he opposed last year's decision to allow women to vote in the 2015 municipal elections. However, Prince Nayef is pragmatic if nothing else; he seeks to maintain his authority and that of the royal family. As attitudes toward women's rights change (slowly) in the Kingdom, Prince Nayef's instinct for self-preservation should push him to go along. The decision to designate a female Saudi Olympian, if finalized, would fit this pattern.

In the soccer case, the instigator has been Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, who serves on the executive committee of FIFA, the global football association. Prince Ali presented the case for overturning the headscarf ban before last month's decision. He has argued that the ban is "not an issue of religious symbolism, it is simply a case of cultural modesty." The availability of a Dutch-designed headscarf, whose Velcro fastener is considered safer than earlier models, also helped. The March decision allows headscarves to be worn on a trial basis while the design is tested. It must still be confirmed in July. But the Associated Press reports that Prince Ali is "optimistic" about ratification.

The context underlying all this is the upheaval of the past year in the Arab world. With citizens--including women--forcefully demanding accountability and rights, leaders have become acutely sensitive to popular desires for change, even in relatively tranquil countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This bodes well for expanding women's access to the athletic arena.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Isobel Coleman is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations. She writes at "Democracy in Development."

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