Muslim women at Olympics

Saturday, August 21, 2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Robina Muqimyar began her track and field training for the 2004 Olympics running on the cracked concrete of the stadium where Afghanistan's Taliban regime had executed scores of people, sometimes hanging their bodies on soccer goal posts.

It was the first time she had run outdoors. And it was just a year ago.

As an Afghan woman, Muqimyar wasn't allowed to emerge from her home under the rule of the Taliban, which was ousted by a U.S. invasion in 2001. Today, she is one of a growing number of Muslim women participating in a wide range of sports at the highest level -- an arena long denied them by poverty and religious or cultural oppression.

A record number of Muslim women are representing their countries this year in Athens, nearly every one of them overcoming unimaginable hardships. Some endure death threats for exposing their legs to foreign men; others prepare for this day without the mats, shoes or other equipment that would be standard in any U.S. or European elementary school, much less the gymnasiums that produce world-class competitors.

And many of the women struggle to find ways to balance their desire to obey Islam's requirements for modesty with the ability to maintain a competitive edge. In contrast to perceptions in the West, many say their societies wholeheartedly encourage their participation in sports.

Muqimyar and teammate Friba Razayee, both 18, are making history here. When Razayee stepped onto the judo mat Wednesday, she became the first woman to compete on behalf of Afghanistan. Muqimyar followed suit Friday in the 100-meter race.

"It is an enormous honor to represent Afghani women in the Olympics for the first time," Razayee said. "I don't care if I don't get any medals. Medals aren't important. Just attending the Olympics is a gold medal for me."

Both women said they were able to reconcile being good Muslims with their activities, even though radical imams at home have condemned them. Muqimyar, for example, competes in long pants, in contrast to the short, tight briefs worn by many sprinters.

They are also adjusting. In a meeting with journalists this week, both women wore short sleeves, and Razayee's cropped, red-tinted hair and Muqimyar's long, dark curls were uncovered, although their requisite ID badges showed them photographed in head scarves.

Egypt, an Islamic but secular country, boasts 15 women in its 96-member delegation. For the first time, an Egyptian woman has qualified for Olympic rowing. Doaa Moussa Alazab practiced on the Nile -- and she rows wearing long pants, long sleeves and a "hijab," as the head scarf is known. "I think I can be a model for religious girls in sports, 'inshallah'" she said, ending with the refrain heard frequently in the Muslim world -- "God willing."

The International Olympic Committee does not track the religions of athletes, so it is impossible to give the exact number Muslim women in this year's Games. Journalists have put the number at about 50, more than in any previous Olympiad.

In much of the Islamic world, fundamentalism is on the rise, with the potential to thwart the success of women in athletics. The Quran, the sacred book of Islam, counsels physical fitness for men and women alike; the prophet Muhammad is said to have challenged his wife, Aisha, to a foot race, and lost. (He reportedly won the rematch.)

But in conservative circles, the mixing of the sexes, the skimpy clothing, and the physical contact and exhibitionism of championship sports are frowned upon, if not outright prohibited.

In Afghanistan under the Taliban, Muqimyar said, she didn't know what sports were, much less the Olympics.

Afghanistan was suspended from the Olympic movement in 1999 because of the Taliban's policy of forbidding women to work and go to school. These Games mark the nation's return.

The Taliban is officially gone, but fundamentalists still menace much of the country. Muqimyar and Razayee said they must train inside a gym with hard concrete floors, or inside the stadium that served as the Taliban execution chamber.

"I want all Afghan women to know they can come out now," Muqimyar said. "I'm one that is opening their way to the world of sports and to the world."

Times staff writer Laura King, recently on assignment in Baghdad, and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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