Marriage, motherhood, education, maybe sports: female Muslim athletes expected priorities

by Chuck Culpepper, July 15, 2016.

Shinoona Salah Al Habsi
(Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

MUSCAT, Oman — After Shinoona Al Habsi entered London’s
Olympic Stadium four years ago with nerves so turbulent she found her
body “dancing, more than shaking,” and after she ran the 100 meters for
her native Oman — in a brisk 12.45 seconds, fourth place in her
qualifying heat — and after she gathered are-you-kidding experiences
such as stretching near men’s sprinter Usain Bolt, she returned home and
heeded a norm.

She got married, in December 2013.
Twenty-six months later, she heeded another norm.
She gave birth, to a son, in February 2016.
spring, the norms yielded. Al Habsi actually returned to training,
eyeing future international competitions. The very sight of her struck
some witnesses as shocking in a culture where sport is an occasional
frivolity girls (and often boys) quit when they start real life.
“Now when I’m back [training] they tell me, ‘What are you doing!’ ” Al Habsi said. 

some coaches and governments in the Middle East aspire to raise
top-flight female athletes, and as they hope for more women in general
to partake in recreational sports, it was telltale that even in the
midst of a sport, a mother back at training doubles as a marvel. It
illustrated the natural discord between the concept of female athletes
and norms such as marriage and childbirth, and how expectations from
families and cultures can thwart athletic pursuits.

Against the
varying cultural grains of the region, athletes such as Farida Osman, an
Egyptian student and championship swimmer at the University of
California who will compete at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next month,
require a crucial boon: staunch family support. Osman’s parents, both
Cairo dentists, endorse her persistence even at an age (21) when most
childhood teammates have stopped, and her London-based brother, Ahmed,
flew clear to Atlanta in March to cheer Farida at the NCAA

Osman (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Al Habsi has a further boon: staunch husband support.

she returned from London to Oman, she did what she thought she was
supposed to do after marriage. She stopped running — for a year. She got
sick repeatedly. A doctor deduced she kept getting sick because she was
a runner who wasn’t running. As she recollects, her husband, Ali Al
Mabsali, a petroleum engineer and a soccer nut, told her, 

“I married
you. You are an athlete. I know you are an athlete. I married an athlete
and a lady. Not a lady who sits at home.’”

Her many relatives
long since knew what her husband meant. She ran with such dispatch as a
child that when her family would ask her to run errands, she would run
the errands. She ran competitively as a teenager even though the rarity
of it worried her mother — “Why this? Why are you going there?” — until
she vowed to sneak out if necessary. “When I am running,” Al Habsi
said, “I feel that I have everything that I need. This feeling. What can
I tell you, this feeling?”

Said her 25-year-old aunt, Maryam Al
Shukairi: “In our family, no one’s stopping her. Some of them, like my
aunt, the sister of my father, sometimes they’re asking, ‘Why she’s
doing that? Till when she’s doing that? She’s a lady! She’ll be getting
married. She will have the kids. Will she continue to do that?’ And we
are replying them, ‘It is important to her. If she wants to compete,
even if she will be having a hundred children, it is depending on her.’”

and niece, so bonded that some relatives think they have their own
dialect, laugh serially as they tell paragraphs-long stories about the
cultural rarity. They laugh as Maryam recollects when the family —
Shinoona has 10 siblings and is the first of the 32 grandchildren of
Maryam’s parents — squeezed in around the TV to watch Shinoona in
London, noticed her nervousness and instructed to the TV, “Concentrate!”
They laugh about the soccer zeal of their husbands, whom they sometimes
try to outrace to the TV remote.

They know that having a runner
in the family provides a rare window on people’s reactions. Maryam
explains that because her parents hail from Tanzania, the cultural rules
might soften slightly as opposed to “the pure Omani,” where “more of
the things are, ‘No, no, no,’ ” she said. She tells of the greater
strictness of rural areas. She also says that, even in her job as a
nurse, she had to reassure colleagues who fretted, erroneously, that
Shinoona’s training might leave her moored in some far-flung place,
chronically separate from her family.


Al Habsi

(David Gray/REUTERS)

husbands nowadays, Maryam said, “are accepting whatever is your hope.
‘Your hope is this and this and this? Do it.’ They are not stopping us.”
She added, “They don’t know the other husbands!” She mentioned one
friend who has foregone the wives’ lunches out because her husband
forbids it.

Even liberal readings of marital and motherly duties in the region can leave little room for sports or exercise.
my mother-in-law, it was something crazy!” Samar Nassar said. “She used
to tell my husband, ‘Are you married to get children, or for your wife
to swim?’” Yet after she swam for Palestine in the 2000 Olympics, got
married to a supportive husband, swam for Jordan in the 2004 Olympics,
and as she heads the organizing committee for Jordan’s upcoming Under-17
Women’s World Cup in soccer, her mother-in-law has become “my biggest
support,” she said.

“I can say I come from a relatively liberal
family,” she said, “but still, we are governed by our culture and our
norms, and despite being a liberal family and being married to a liberal
husband, there are still cultural expectations for a girl who is in
school, or a married woman. For me to be able to swim when I was engaged
and married, everything had to be perfect at home. I didn’t give a
chance for anybody to talk about, to interfere in my swimming.

I was up at 5:30 in the morning [to train, before her husband woke]. I
made sure that lunch was at the table at 1 o’clock. And our lunches in
Jordan are not the typical, easy-to-whip-up meals. They’re all vine
leaves and stuffed courgettes, so I had to make sure that lunch was on
the table, and I had to make sure at night I’m dressed up and tip-top
for the social events and gatherings, and sleeping at 12 a.m. and then
up by 5:30 a.m.

“To strike that balance and make sure that
nothing gives, whether on the social front or the family or my
obligations or my swimming, it was tough. But it’s doable . . . For a
woman, a married woman, that was really pushing the boundaries, but
everything is doable with a supportive husband.”

Al Bitar (Nikki
Kahn/The Washington Post)

‘Wow, she is amazing’

sport never even gets to vie with marriage or motherhood. It long since
has conceded to a third force also deemed mandatory for girls:

As Hassan Afifi, a 41-year-old Egyptian, gave up his
dreary finance job in London, rediscovered his abs and started a pro
triathlon team called Alameda o.n., he took aim at what he considers a
counterproductive view of women’s capabilities. “I have a girl and a
boy,” he said, “and for me the thing that would kill me is if my
daughter one day comes to me and says, ‘I cannot do this because I’m a
girl.’ ”

He couldn’t find Arab women in triathlon, so he hired
some elite female triathletes to mentor a developmental team of girls
and one woman, the 26-year-old Bahraini former Olympic swimmer Sameera
Al Bitar, who has veered into triathlon. Afifi knows the girls might
absorb all the time and tutelage yet still eventually peel off, their
participation losing out to cultural obligation.

Telling a recent
story, he said, “It was as if someone stabbed me. I was at the sports
club in Cairo. I found an old university friend of mine. Very open
place, and everything, and open-minded people around. And this is
someone I studied economics with at university, and she was there
because her daughter was doing swim practice. And I was chatting with
her, we haven’t spoken in about 15 years. ‘How are you, blah-blah-blah.’
‘This is my daughter in the water.’

“And I’m looking, ‘Wow,
she’s amazing. She’s really talented.’ ‘Yeah, in competition she won her
age group, and she came second in the nationals and stuff.’ And I’m
like, ‘Wow, this is amazing, she’s only 12,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, does
she enjoy it? Does she want to become a champion?’ And she says, ‘No,
no, no, no. I’m not going to put those ideas in her head.’ I’m like,
‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Oh, well, if it’s her brother, it’s fine, but for
her, no, she’s going to go to university and get married.’ I’m like,
‘No! No! Why did you say that!’ ”

Indonesia, the world’s largest
Muslim nation, has won 14 women’s medals in its Olympic history; Turkey
has won nine. Algeria’s first gold medal came from Hassiba Boulmerka,
who won the 1,500 meters at Barcelona in 1992 despite a local imam’s
publicized objection to her clothing in track and field. Syria’s lone
gold medal came from Shada Ghouaa at Atlanta in 1996 in the heptathlon,
and Habiba Ghribi became the first Tunisian female to win a medal, a
silver in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at London in 2012.

summarized: “You get every year, you have maybe three or four Arab
athletes, female athletes, who go to the Olympics, they do something
great . . . But they’re individuals. And if you look it’s not the system
that made them. They made themselves by themselves and they defied all
kinds of challenges and everything. And this is not what we want to do.”

Fatma Al Nabhani (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

‘I will show everyone’

the Egyptian swimmer at the University of California, has become the
Pacific-12 Conference champion in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard
butterfly, and has anchored two NCAA champion relays. She states with
her customary cheer, “I want to be the first female Egyptian to win an
Olympic gold medal.” She might have kept it at “medal.” Egypt has
appeared at Olympics since 1912, with 26 male medals, zero female.

swimming,” Osman said, “girls usually stop by the age of 16 or 18,
maximum. And this is where they start either focusing on academics, or
maybe like getting married. Yeah, this is the age where everyone just
stops swimming. I’m one of the few people who continue until now. My
team used to be, like, 20, and now we’re only like two or three who keep
on swimming until now. I’m definitely the only girl, in my age group at

“I feel like, when we’re young and growing up, I feel
like families encourage sports, but then when it starts having
interference with school or other important things, they just stop
straightway. They don’t really know how to balance both. They always
have to choose one over the other.”

The complementary
possibilities of sports and academics did occur to Hadia Mohammed
Mustafa, an Omani mother of two sons and a daughter, all of whom
excelled at tennis with her guidance. Her sons study for advanced
degrees in Scotland and Paris, and her daughter, Fatma Al Nabhani,
ranked No. 391 in the world in the hard wilds of tennis.

example, when first my mom started, her friends and family, they would
tell her, ‘You are crazy! What are you doing?’ ” Al Nabhani said. “
‘This is the future of the kids, being here and focusing on their study!
What will tennis ever do for them?’ But they didn’t understand that
also tennis could be a future, because through tennis, they went to the
college, they got scholarships, you know, to play for the universities
and stuff, so this is the future as well. And the biggest example, my
brother, he was a professional player and now he’s finishing his Ph.D.”

said, “My mom is very strong,” and, “I hope I do at least a tiny, small
change, that people think I changed their thinking.”

shared accomplishment as coach-mother and player-daughter magnifies when
considering that, as a girl, Al Nabhani lacked the kind of ready rivals
who can help a teenager build toward the brutal international terrain.
In the Middle East, girls who persist often know a lonely persistence.

be honest, when I was younger, if I ever knew that there was a female
athlete that made it professionally, and you are able to do it, and
reach toward those goals, I would have been more confident of myself and
knowing of myself, ‘Oh yeah, I can do it,’ ” Al Nabhani said. “But
being the only one and the first to take this experience, it was really

 Said Osman, “Two years before I came to Cal, I was actually swimming alone. It was actually kind of boring.”
then, “was so different,” she said. “Because, you know how when you’re
swimming alone, the coach usually just has practices for you? . . . So
it was definitely hard at the beginning. I was definitely struggling,
just making the intervals or just being at their level in practice. I
used to probably cry every other week, because it was really hard. Just
like, I never practiced at 5 a.m. back home.”

In Cairo, where she swam for a club in the upscale Zamalek district, she would swim a more genteel 4 p.m.
Farida arrived at Cal, she was inexperienced and not a very good
trainer,” said Teri McKeever, California’s coach. “She didn’t have a lot
of knowledge of the sport, swimming techniques or racing strategies.
She had never trained with other top athletes, so she wasn’t aware of
what she needed to know. Farida has developed into a great racer and is
someone you know will bring her best in meet situations.”

For the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, at age 25, Osman says, “Definitely.” For the 2024 Olympics, at 29, she says, “That would be, like, wow.”
Egyptian culture, you need to be married at a certain age,” she said,
laughing again. “Twenty five is like, ‘You’re late. Why are you not
married until now?’ ” Next come children: “Egypt, it’s like, you have
to!” she said, laughed, and said that while you don’t have to hurry,
people do start asking.

“I definitely want to be a mom,” she said. “I don’t know when, exactly.”
the region, a woman who is already a mother could represent Oman in the
Olympics. It just won’t be the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Having
just given birth in February, Al Habsi doesn’t want to show up subpar.
She wants to regain tip-top form, then resume international competition.
She scoffs at the 12.45 seconds she ran in London four years ago. “I’m
faster now, 11.60,” she wrote in a text. She’s hoping for ample
doubters. She does love those.

“I will show everyone,” she said. 

The Female Muslim Athlete

countries from the Middle East might send an unprecedented number of
female competitors to next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the
support of other women and a growing number of men, they have widened
the cultural possibilities about the role of women in their societies,
including standards about when they should marry, how soon they should
start a family and what they should wear while competing. This series is
about the courage and perseverance of female athletes in one of the
last regions on Earth to celebrate them.