Women’s sports in Mosul: A “crime” behind closed doors

By Suha Auda / Ninewa
Their manner when they entered the sports hall seemed like that of a frightened person who creeps stealthily into a place to commit a secret offence. The juvenile girls entered one after another; each was looking around herself while a female or male trainer would volunteer to close the door behind them and lock it. We were surprised that we were allowed into the hall along with the girls. Then the sound of the gate being locked was heard, announcing that this hall is exclusively allocated for women and that entry of their male athlete colleagues is strictly prohibited.

What happens behind closed doors?

In this place they are out of sight. Their number does not exceed 20. Therefore, the Section of Physical Education at the Faculty of Sport had to confine them to only one Division. Their number is small compared to the large numbers of male youth. This led them to practice their sports drills in halls that do not fit such activities. On this point, Ms. Liqaa Abdul Muttalib, a rhythmic gymnastics trainer at Mosul University / the Faculty of Physical Education, commented that “The hall where we are coaching them in rhythmic gymnastics is not suitable due to its low ceiling and the poor condition of the floor, in addition to the lack of carpets that are required for gymnastics. There are pillars in the hall which limit free movement and rotational flips. This hall was initially designed for physical fitness”. The trainer added: “The gymnastics hall is on the other side and is currently used by male students and there is no chance that it will be available because of their big numbers - they are divided into eight divisions - compared to female students.”

We knocked at another iron gate and were invited in. Behind it, we met Captain Ammar Shihab, the coach of the recently formed five-member female football team. The team comprises a number of female athletes from the various faculties at the University. When asked about the extent of women’s participation in athletic tournaments, Shihab said, “Women’s participation has shrunk following the 2003 events. However, this did not prevent them from exercising and participating in sports tournaments. Our women’s football team took part in the tournament that took place in Syria in 2010.”

About the separation between the two genders, which is currently practiced at play yards and sports halls, Shihab said, “I believe that separation between the two genders during training is a right step for both of them at the present time.”

Role of society in lack of sports activities for women

The way society in Mosul views women is reflected in the attitude towards women's participation in sports. Some people even believe that such involvement is an inappropriate phenomenon. This is quite apparent in the opinion expressed by Nihad Mohamed Qais, a 22-year-old student at the Faculty of Art / Arabic Language. “I don’t like women’s participation in sports. It is not a civilized phenomenon. Therefore, I will not allow my sister or a female relative to participate in sports or to join an athletic club or faculty,” he said. “What makes me reject the idea is what I heard about the presence of boys and girls together, in addition to the presence of male coaches. I also do not like the idea of women wearing sports uniforms,” he added.

While the majority of men in Mosul do not agree with women’s participation in sports, some women support it. One of them is Dhikra, a rather overweight 20-year-old young lady, who said with a smile brightening her countenance: “I do encourage women’s engagement in sports, provided that they do their exercises in the absence of men so that they will feel at ease, at least with regard to wearing the sports uniform. I believe that religious considerations are the main reason behind the families’ objections to their daughters joining faculties of sport.”

Role of the Olympic Committee and sports clubs

For his part, the Deputy Representative of the Olympic Committee in Ninewa Governorate, Khalid Abdul Majeed, said that “Social conditions and families’ reluctance to allow their daughters to participate in sports, in addition to the increasing number of girls who are wearing hijab (head cover) as dictated by the customs and traditions of the society — all these factors constituted the straw that broke the camel’s back with regard to women’s participation in sports. No doubt, this has impacted on the work of the Olympic Committee in the area of women's sports.”

"We have 32 athletic unions for men while none are found for women. This is due to the limited number of female athletes. The Girl Club which is affiliated with the Directorate of the Ministry of Sport and Youth in Mosul city, compensates for the lack of female athletic unions,” Abdul Majeed said, speaking about the role of the Girls Club in Mosul. “The club is currently managed by non-technical people from the sports point of view. It has no outputs and is fully dependent on the Physical Education Faculty,” he added, slightly annoyed.

Perhaps security and social conditions have obstructed women’s participation in sports and athletic activities. However, the role of sports is more effective in Ninewa Plain. The Deputy Representative of the Olympic Committee in Ninewa Governorate elaborated on this, saying, “We have a female volleyball team which ranks second in Iraq. However, all the teams are found in Ninewa Plain because of the better security situation in the area as well as the positive social views about female athletes, which is almost free of perceptions of inferiority.”

A challenge to social norms

Duaa Sabhan, 22, is a naturally talented and enthusiastic athlete. The hijab did not prevent her from moving around confidently in the corridors of the faculty, wearing her sports uniform. She is a member of the five-member female football team. "Since childhood, sports were my favourite hobby,” she said, describing her athletic experience. “I started exercising when I was at the primary school and continued until I went to university. So, joining the Faculty of Physical Education was quite natural.”

About not exercising  with her male colleagues, she said: “I do not support the present separation between us and our male colleagues. There is nothing that prevents me from exercising with them. I don’t pay attention to society’s views because my sole wish is to learn and improve my athletic skills. My father often encourages me to get rid of the state of social shyness.”

When society constitutes a barrier, parents may support their daughters and lead them towards success and allow them to travel and participate in athletic contests. But the case of Duaa is quite different from that of Riyam Ali, a 20-year-old student at the Faculty of Economics & Administration. She is a member of the female football team. “My family did not allow me to join the Faculty of Physical Education,” she said, describing her frustration. “Therefore, at the end of the day, when my lectures finish, I join the team to attend training drills and exercises. Of course my male and female colleagues do not know about my coming here because they do not welcome the idea.”

“The hijab hinders my drills and I feel hot while exercising. Therefore I take it off during training,” Riaym added.

What does religion say?

Religion has its say concerning women’s involvement in sport and taking part in contests. “Women’s sport nowadays is a cause for molestation of women, particularly the sports that are covered by media and broadcast to the public,” said Skeikh Ahmed Ghanim, imam and preacher at the Islamic Awakening Mosque and a member of Iraq’s Scholars Association in Ninewa. “The aim of this is merely to export women to the West. However, women may exercise and do their drills inside confined halls, separately from men, while wearing their legal dresses.”

“The limited role of women in the athletic field in terms of winning medals, good results, flags and participation does not constitute any risk to the country, and female athletes winning medals and cups is not an achievement for the country and does not contribute to its development,” Sheikh Ghanim added.

Religious and social views are almost the same. Both of them seem to have contributed to the coup de grâce against women’s sports in the Governorate of Ninewa and in Iraq as a whole.


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