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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Michael Casey, originally published on NBC SPORTS

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – The awards ceremony for the Gulf Cooperation Council Women’s Games was hardly on the grandest of stages.

But the makeshift podium in a tiny conference room of a mostly empty sports resort was the closest thing to an Olympic moment that three women from Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait had ever experienced – and they embraced it.

As cameras flashed and several dozen cheered, each woman wrapped herself in her country’s flag and held bouquets of flowers aloft. A national anthem crackled from a loud speaker.

“I feel great joy to get this gold medal,” said Bahya al-Hamad, a beaming 18-year-old who won gold for Qatar in the 10-meter rifle competition. “This is all for my country.”

By international standards, the weeklong GCC Women’s Games was a modest affair with only five countries, seven sports and no record-breaking performances. But for the 350 Muslim athletes who took part, many wearing head scarves and other traditional attire, it was a significant step in a region where women were discouraged from taking up sports just a decade ago. Qatar and Saudi Arabia still haven’t sent a female athlete to the Olympics.

Organizers also said the competition showed that most Gulf governments – Saudi Arabia didn’t send a team – are now promoting women’s sports, both to overcome the perception they are sexist and to combat health problems such as diabetes and obesity.

“The long-term objective is to encourage all the ladies in the (Gulf) to participate in sports,” said Mohammed al-Mahmood, general secretary of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, which organized the GCC Games.

“We have the talent and this talent needs to be well trained so they can achieve their targets, win medals and raise the flag of the country in international competition.”

Talk of reaching the Olympics was on the minds of many coaches and athletes, none more so than Qatar, which wants to escape the stigma that comes with failing to include women on its previous teams. It also is under pressure now that its hosting the 2022 World Cup.

The International Olympic Committee said last year that it would press Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia to send athletes to the 2012 London Olympics. Some IOC officials have suggested Saudi Arabia should be banned from the 2012 games because of its males-only policy.

The pressure on the three countries comes as women’s participation is at an all-time high worldwide, reaching 42 percent of all athletes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, which sent their first women.

Qatari sports officials said it is unfair to lump their nation in with the likes of more conservative Saudi Arabia, insisting it has made great strides in promoting women’s sports since it first sent 25 athletes to the 2002 Women’s Islamic Games in Iran.

The number of Qatari women attending the Asian Games increased from eight in 2002 to 64 last year, and Qatari authorities said they started a six-team women’s soccer league and plan to host a Gulf basketball tournament in April. They also sent girls to the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore last year.

“I see movement and it’s step by step,” said Ahlam Salem al-Mana, president of the Qatar Women’s Sport Committee.

Al-Mana admitted there was a time when families in the desert nation of 1.6 million kept their women confined to the home and worried about little more than ensuring they got married. But by introducing sports in schools, authorities such as a wife of the country’s ruler, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, have successfully conveyed the message that sports can be good for girls and would not shame their families, a fear in the Muslim country.

The first sign that attitudes were changing, al-Mana said, was when Qatar hosted the Asian Games in 2006.

“They saw all the teams, all the sports,” she said. “They say, ‘Why no Qatari teams? Why you don’t push our girls.’ Maybe before that, really in Qatar they don’t know about Asian Games. When it comes in Doha, everyone knows about it. Everybody now says we must try to push our girls to participate.”

The Qatari athletes acknowledge they are beneficiaries of this transformation, saying their families supported their taking up sports and any opposition melted away as they started winning medals and gaining recognition.

“Now more families are getting open-minded,” said Mahbubeh Akhlaghi, a Qatari shooter whose braces and eggshell blue nail polish contrast with a traditional black abaya she wears outside of competition.

“They should let their daughters play. We are in the 21st century,” she said. “Each person has a jewel inside themselves and they need to show it.”

A competitive shooter since 2003, the 20-year-old Akhlaghi says she took up the sport after outdoing men and boys at a carnival shooting gallery. She said she is “in love with shooting” and never worries about whether the sport is appropriate for a Muslim girl.

“I trusted my mom. She was supporting me,” she said. “Some families, their mothers are willing to support their daughters, but their father doesn’t support the idea much because they are close-minded. They are afraid of people that talk around them. I didn’t care even if they talked. I know myself and know who I am.”

Al-Hamad, Akhlaghi’s teammate, also aspires to reach the Olympics and become a world champion, having learned to shoot on trips to the desert with her family.

“I would be proud. It would not just be for me,” al-Hamad said. “Everyone would know that Qatar has girls getting into the Olympics.”

However, it’s unlikely anyone from the Qatar women’s team will compete in London – unless they receive one of the IOC’s special invitations for unqualified athletes, 90 of which were granted for Beijing. Qatari coaches, players and al-Mana admit no female athletes would qualify by traditional means such as winning medals at the Asian Games.

It’s a problem for many Gulf nations, where women’s sports are so new that most athletes lack the experience of other Asian athletes and struggle to find suitable competition in their countries. They also complain they aren’t given the same financial support as men, forcing them to choose between school, work or a career in athletics.

“This makes us very sad. There is a difference between girls and boys inside Kuwait,” said Hamayel al-Yaquot, who participated in taekwondo at the GCC Games, but couldn’t go to the Asian Games last year in Guangzhou, China, because of work.

Al-Yaquot wouldn’t have come to the GCC games if it was only about the money. She was there to represent her country and inspire a younger generation to follow her lead.

This was clear at her gold-medal match, where hundreds of school girls filled an auditorium to watch her compete against UAE’s Shaikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the daughter of Dubai’s ruler and the flag bearer for the country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Maitha won gold, much to the glee of the girls who waved UAE flags and chanted her name.

“If I can do it, they certainly can,” Maitha said. “That is what I’m trying to show. There are no limitations. If you have ambition, if you have a dream, pursue it. That is the message in all sports, to pursue and triumph.”

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