By Craig Lord
ATHENS, August 11. WHEN Rubab Raza, a 13-year-old from Punjab, takes the plunge in the heats of the 50 meters freestyle here on Friday morning next week, she will help to free Islamic women from sporting purdah by becoming the first female swimmer from Pakistan to race in the pool at an Olympic Games, 92 years after ladies were allowed into the water.
Raza, the daughter of Syed Sibtain Raza, a retired army major, and Lubna Raza, an army doctor, will make her debut in a sharkskin, full-length
racing bodysuit that has made it possible for Islamic women to comply with
strict religious laws that forbid skimpy swimwear and dictate modesty for
In a country where not even the bodysuit appeases hardliners who
say that competitive swimming is not for women, Raza's age also helps.
"There is no obstacle in Pakistan to swimming for a girl of 13. But after that, it is another world," Raza's mother said in an interview with the BBC World Service.
While some men interviewed in Lahore say that Raza is brilliant, others state that her sport acts against the faith of Islam.
To avoid judgment, the youngster, who started swimming at the age of 7 and trains twice a day at the Gymkhana club in Lahore, is accompanied by other women when she goes swimming.
"Whenever I go out of home or train at the swimming pool, some family members, or at least my grandmother, remain with me. There are some other girls who swim," Raza said. "People laugh when they hear that we swim.
With boys it's OK, but with girls they think it's strange."
Selection for the Olympic Games, via one of the wild-card
entries granted by the International Olympic Committee to help to further
world understanding, was "a great honor" for the schoolgirl.
Veena Masud, manager of the swimming team, and a member of the Pakistan Olympic Association, said: "The important thing is that Pakistan has come out of sporting purdah, and done so within the Islamic culture." Masud petitioned the Pakistan Government to allow women to swim in international competitions so long as they obeyed Islamic customs.
The first woman to represent Pakistan in an Olympic event was Shabana Akhtar, who ran the 100 meters and 200 meters at Atlanta in 1996. In
Athens, Raza is one of only two women in the Pakistan squad, along with
Sumera Zahoor, who will compete in the 200 meter run. Mumtaz Ahmed is the only other swimmer.