September 25, 2005

The Other Shoe?

Back in April I wrote a brief item about the Islamic Solidarity Games, a competition which does not include women as competitors or spectators. The linked article (which has now disappeared) drew a comparison between the Islamic Solidarity Games and the original Ancient Olympics. However, as Ralph Hickok pointed out in the comments, the ancient Greeks also held women-only events which men were not permitted to attend.

Now, I wouldn't say that maintaining a millenia-long tradition of discrimination against women is something to boast about, but the Islamic Games may be closer to the spirit of the ancient Greeks than the original piece suggested. The Islamic Women's Games are being held in Tehran this week.

Male coaches, referees, and spectators are banned from attending any of the competitions, except for golf, shooting, and archery. (Those three sports are exceptions because the female competitors are "modestly" dressed, presumably in the "obligatory headscarf and long coat.") Similarly no photography or video is allowed.

The Women's Games were launched in 1993, and have been hosted by Iran every four years since. They exist either as an opportunity for strict observers of Islam to participate in an elite sporting event without compromising their religious beliefs, or as a sideshow designed to placate female competitors who are not allowed to participate in "real" competitions. That interpretation, of course, depends on which side of the cultural divide you inhabit.

Other Muslim countries have offered to host the event, but the Iranians are worried that nobody else would be strict enough:

Other countries have different interpretations of Islam. I am not sure they would be able to hold the games like us with such observance of Islamic rules — Faezeh Hashemi

Even more than the Islamic Solidarity Games, this event is pretty hard for me to stomach. It may be true that many Muslim women "are absent from the international sports grounds due to their beliefs," but it must also be true that there are many Iranian Muslims who would happily compete unveiled in international competition if they were permitted by their government.

Since the Islamic revolution Iranian women have been mostly banned from international sporting events due to the obligatory headscarf and long coat that they must wear in front of men. Under the previous reformist government of the last eight years, Iran started sending women athletes to competitions abroad in the events where women are able to compete and wear the veil, such as shooting, taekwondo, fencing, canoeing, chess and horse riding.

(As an aside, I have to ask: if you can wear a veil in canoeing, then what's ruled out? Aquatics, I suppose. But I digress.)

As I wrote in the comments to my April post, I am not sure that there is anything that more progressive-minded organizations can do to discourage these competitions, since there are few obvious places to apply pressure. In general, the strictest Islamic states have only a minor interest in the Olympic Games and other international competitions, and are uninterested in sporting exchanges with non-Muslim nations.

However, there are two points raised in another news article which made me somewhat angry. The first is that IOC president Jacques Rogge has publicly endorsed the games, saying that they "will give women the chance to experience the joy of competing as well as feeling part of the global movement to promote women in sport and through sport." The second is that the USA have sent a representative in the form of Texan runner Saira Kureshi. Kureshi is the first American woman to compete in Iran since 1979.

I would have no problem with the existence of the Islamic Women's Games, if it were not the only option available to female citizens of the world's most oppressive Islamic nations. I will grant that for Muslim women who believe that it is sacreligious to appear unveiled in front of a man, the Islamic Women's Games do provide a sporting opportunity that is otherwise unavailable. There are, however, non-Muslims who live in these countries, and Muslim women who observe an interpretation of the hijab that is less strict than the official government line. The IOC and the USOC should not be endorsing the Islamic Women's Games while those citizens are denied any opportunity to pursue athletic competition on their own terms.


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