BY ANNIKA HAMMERSCHLAG
When Moroccan-born Nawal el Moutawakel won the gold medal for the 400 meter hurdles at the 1984 Summer Olympics, she became the first woman from not only Morocco, but a Muslim majority country to win an Olympic gold medal.
“It changed how people looked at a woman athlete from that culture,” said American Olympian Donna de Varona, who has won two gold medals in swimming and has advocated extensively for Title IX, the U.S. law that paved the way for girls’ participation in sports. “She just transcended all the traditions by winning.”
Following el Moutawakel’s win, the Moroccan king phoned to congratulate her and declared that all girls born on the anniversary of that day be named in her honor. El Moutawakel, then 22, was later appointed as Morocco’s Minister of Sports and now presides as the vice president of the International Olympic Committee.
However not all women from developing countries who compete on an international level receive such a warm response.
Khalida Popal made history in Afghanistan in 2004 as one of the country’s first women to take up soccer. Then 16, she faced heavy backlash from friends, teachers, the government and other women as she and a group girls began playing in public areas.
“Groups of men would jump into our football field and take the ball, they’d throw rocks at us, they’d try to grab our clothes,” she said during an interview, the vehemence in her voice nearly palpable. “They would warn us that if we continued to play we could get raped or shot.”
Under Taliban law, women were required to seek permission from men to do anything from pursuing an education to leaving the house, and if they did leave the house, they were obligated to don an all-covering burqa and have a male family member accompany them.
As Popal gained notoriety, her environment became increasingly hostile. Female teachers kicked her out of classrooms and men refused to marry her and her teammates, accusing them of being prostitutes.
Unwilling to concede, they formed Afghanistan’s first National Women’s Football Team in 2007 and travelled to Pakistan to compete in their first international game. When they returned home after winning, they were surprised when a large number of men greeted them at the airport with cheers and flowers. Even President Hamid Karzai called to offer congratulations and show support.
“And then people forgot,” she said. Within one month of their win, her team was again facing physical and verbal attacks.
The situation escalated drastically in 2010 when her team lost at the South Asian Games. The media condemned their efforts, criticizing them for dishonoring their country.
“For the men of Afghanistan, have you ever thought about how bad killing and terrorism is for the image of our country? Ever thought about it? And then you say we’re the ones giving a bad image?”
Popal harnessed her anger and frustration and spoke out publicly against Afghanistan’s mistreatment of women. However when she and her family began receiving threats from the Taliban, she was forced to make a difficult decision between leaving her family and continuing to fight for women’s rights.
“In a country like Afghanistan where the men make all the decisions for women it is so difficult to stand up for our rights,” she said in a speech at a United Nations meeting on women in sports last month. “I wanted to prove that I’m a woman, and I’m strong, and I’m not weak. I hate to be silenced. I hate to see wrongdoing and keep silent. I hate that.”
Popal chose to continue her fight in Denmark where she was offered asylum. She hasn’t seen her family in five years.
“I chose football as a tool to stand up for my rights and to encourage other women to stand up for their rights and to raise their voice and break the silence that has existed for many many years in my country,” she said. “Everyday they kill women, they burn women. I won’t stand for it.”
Abuse toward female athletes doesn’t always stem from culture and religion. When Elizabeth Andiego, 29, competed at the 2012 London Olympics as Kenya’s first female Olympic boxer, she had high hopes of returning to her Nairobi slum with gold and cash in hand.
“Rather than it being an Olympic dream, it turned a little bit into an Olympic nightmare,” said Heather Cameron, the founder of Boxgirls International, where Andiego trained. Andiego lost in the first round, creating a wave of disappointment felt by herself, her family, and her country.
“She ended up basically impoverished,” said Cameron. “When people have expectations of being able to support their families after so many years of sacrifice, that’s devastating to them.”
Cameron notes that while Andiego wasn’t subjected to violence following her loss, physical abuse is common for other women in Kenya who disappoint their families.
“There are similar problems around sport being able to raise women’s social capital, and it undoubtedly does,” said Cameron. “But that will obviously challenge other people with entrenched power interests in keeping women down, keeping women stupid, and keeping women not understanding that there’s a world outside of their small repressed community.”
Cameron recalls a United Nations sports and leadership camp where she witnessed women from patriarchal countries engage with outspoken female leaders from other nations. “They came back to their countries not understanding why they had to cover their hair at their own closed training sessions, or why they were supposed to wait until the boys had been fed at the cafeteria,” she said.
Nicole Hoevertsz, a former Olympic athlete from Aruba and member of the International Olympic Committee, also recognizes the potential of international competition to empower women, as “income, class, religion and other factors that can become triggers for discrimination have no relevance on a field of play.”
“Sport encourages women to take control over their lives and over their bodies,” she said at the UN meeting. “It gives them a sense of ownership and self-respect that encourages them to stand up for their rights. Sport offers a platform to teach boys and young men to respect women.”
Looking ahead to Rio 2016, she acknowledges the unjust emphasis many countries place on winning as opposed to participation, but also notes the power of sports to act as an equalizer, “to rally communities, to engage youth, to reach out to the most difficult and vulnerable groups, and to create shared interests.”