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Muslim Women at the Olympics -- August 21, 2004

By Amir Taheri

THE Greek organizers of this summer's Olympics claim that more women athletes are competing than ever before. Women are also playing a high-profile role in making the whole enterprise, the biggest of its kind in Greek history, run as smoothly as possible. Seen from the Muslim world, however, the Athens game looks like a male-dominated spectacle in which women play an incidental part.

According to officials in Athens, the number of Muslim women participating in this year's game is the lowest since 1960. Several Muslim countries have sent no women athletes at all; others, such as Iran, are taking part with only one, in full hijab. And state-owned TV networks in many Muslim countries, including Iran and Egypt, have received instructions to limit coverage of events featuring women athletes at Athens to a minimum.

A circular from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture in Tehran asks TV editors to make sure that women's games are not televised live: "Images of women engaged in contests [sic] must be carefully vetted," says the letter, leaked in Tehran. "Editors must take care to prevent viewers from being confronted [sic] with uncovered parts of the female anatomy in contests."

Women athletes in Athens are unlikely to wear the Islamic hijab or full-length manteaux that cover their legs to the ankle and their arms to the wrist. The ministry's order thus could mean a blanket ban on images of female athletics.

Fear of Muslim viewers seeing bare female legs and arms on television is also shared by theologians in several Arab states. Sheik Yussuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian theologian based in Qatar, claims that female sport is exploited as a means of undermining "divine morality."

Ayatollah Emami Kashani, one of Iran's ruling mullahs, goes further. In a recent sermon, he claimed that allowing women to compete in the Olympics was a "sign of voyeurism" on the part of the male organizers.

"The question how much of a woman's body could be seen in public is one of the two or three most important issues that have dominated theological debate in Islam for decades," says Mohsen Sahabi, a Muslim historian.
"More time and energy is devoted to this issue than to economic development or scientific research. "


Islamist theologians are divided on how much of a woman's body can be exposed in public. The most radical, the Sitris, insist that women should be entirely covered from head to toe, including their faces and fingers. The less radical Hanbalis say a woman should be covered all over, but recommend a mask with apertures for the eyes and the mouth. (A version of this, known as the burqa, was imposed on Afghan women by the Taliban).

The Khomeinist version of the hijab, invented in the 1970s and now popular in many countries, including the United States, covers a woman's entire body but allows her face and hands to be exposed. Hijab theoreticians agree on one claim: a woman's hair emanates dangerous rays that could drive men wild with sexual lust and thus undermine social peace.

But the problem of women athletes goes deeper. Some theologians claim that any form of sporting activity by women produces "sinful consequences." In 2000, for example, the Khomeinist authorities in Tehran announced a ban on women riding bicycles or motorcycles. The rationale? Riding bicycles or motorcycles would activate a woman's thighs and legs, thus arousing
"uncontrollable lustful drives" in her. And men watching women on their bikes in the streets could be "led towards dangerous urges."

The problems don't end there. According to some theologians, a woman should not be allowed to venture out of her home without a "raqib" or male guardian. But that guardian must be either her husband or her father, brother, grandfather, uncle or son.

Even if a woman is accompanied by such a "raqib" at a sporting event, the problem isn't solved. One woman's "raqib" will be a stranger to the other women playing, say, a game of volleyball. Thus any sport involving more than one woman produces complex chaperonage problems.

Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, have tried to avoid these by imposing a blanket ban on physical education and sports for women. Some Saudi women resent this and have been trying to persuade the government to change its mind.

In June, the kingdom's appointed parliament passed a bill legalizing physical education for girls. But last week the Ministry of Education announced that it would take no notice of the act of parliament because there has been no decision by the Council of Ministers, which is headed by the king (who also acts as prime minister).

"Coming on the eve of the Athens Olympics, this is a big disappointment," says Fa'ezah Ahmad, a Saudi women's right campaigner.

There is also bad news from Iran.

Last year, the Tehran Municipality presented a plan to provide sports facilities for women. It proposed amendments to 37 laws and ordinances that discriminate against women. It also unveiled a plan to develop women-only sports grounds. A model stadium was set up with 12-foot-high walls to make sure that no one could see the women from the outside. The stadium was to operate with an all-female staff, including coaches and administrators.

The plan was scrapped last February, when critics claimed that the proposed stadium was located close enough to an airport that women in the stadium might be seen by men flying above them in jetliners and helicopters.

The municipality still hopes to find another plot of land to build an all-female facility. "Women account for a majority of the population in this city," says Esfandiar Mashaie, Tehran deputy mayor for social affairs. "We cannot ask them to pay municipal taxes but be denied the same facilities as men simply because we fear that some men may go wild by seeing women doing sport."

At times, fear of women doing sports causes major headaches for Islamic governments. The Islamic Republic in Iran, for example, has agreed to host the Muslim Women's International badminton games next year. Although all the participating athletes have agreed to wear uniforms that cover them from head to toe, the organizers are still worried that men might sneak in to have a look at what is going on.

To solve the problem, the authorities have decided to hold the games in a remote mountain resort. The only road leading to the resort will be sealed by an all-female unit of the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The games will be organized and supervised by exclusively female staff and recorded by an all-female TV crew.

"The place would look like a lepers' colony," says Soheila Karimi, a women-rights campaigner. "These people live on another planet and in a different epoch."

--Courtesy, The New York Post