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Sport still a tough choice for Muslim women

sports Updated: May 19, 2010 23:06 IST

They only recently got a grass practice field. They’ve come under attack on their Facebook page, and some fear telling their relatives that during their spare time they play football. Such are the troubles facing the national women’s team from the United Arab Emirates. And this is progress.

Recently, the UAE women scored their greatest triumph, making their first appearance in a major tournament. Playing live on national television — and in front of a boisterous crowd of several hundred men — the Gulf upstarts stunned reigning champion Jordan 1-0 in the West Asian Football Federation championship.

“It has made me so proud,” said Alaa Ahmed, a 15-year-old midfielder who is one of the few players wearing a tightly drawn, black head scarf, leggings and long-sleeved shirt during matches. “Afterward, the other kids in school came up and asked for my autograph. They said I was a star.”

The topsy-turvy journey of the team is symptomatic of the issues faced by female athletes across the Islamic world.

Helped by families moving to the cities, better education and increased government support, Muslim women from Indonesia to Morocco are taking up sports in growing numbers. They are forming football leagues in Turkey, boxing clubs in Afghanistan and rugby teams in Iran.

Nearly 150 female athletes from 18 Muslim countries took part in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a record and a fivefold increase from the 1988 Seoul games, according to the International Olympic Committee. Yet the growth comes in fits and starts, and is vulnerable to age-old cultural pressures, modern rules and varying player commitment.