Female athleticism on rise in Qatar and Middle East, accompanied by social and cultural challenges

February 13, 2012

Recent research by NU-Q professor Geoff Harkness and his student Samira Islam examines the quiet gender revolution underway in the region’s sports

Doha, Qatar – February 12, 2012 –With female sports participation in the Middle East on the rise, women and girls in the region are encountering a unique set of challenges not faced by their Western counterparts, according to recent research conducted at Northwestern University in Qatar.

NU-Q sociologist Geoff Harkness and his course student Samira Islam shed light on the quiet, often overlooked gender revolution that has been brewing in the region in the arena of sports through their preliminary research, “Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab.”

The research was published in the latest edition of Contexts Magazine, a publication of the American Sociological Association.

“Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include family, religion, politics, and culture.  These issues often take place over use or nonuse of the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women,” the report notes.

The report is part of ongoing research that Harkness is conducting on female sports participation in Qatar, and comes as the country prepares to celebrate its first National Sports Day on February 14.

“There are a number of misconceptions about people from the Middle East, especially women. One benefit of this type of sociological research is that it can help reduce some of those stereotypes and paint a more accurate picture of what life is really like here,” says Harkness.

The research is the result of nearly a year of collaboration between the NU-Q professor and his student Samira Islam, an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar who conducted interviews with female athletes and their coaches at Education City while enrolled in Harkness’ sociology class.

On his collaboration with student Islam, Harkness adds, “The students in Doha can access arenas of social life that academics cannot permeate as easily. Because Samira was a basketball player at CMUQ, she had unique insights into the world of female athletics in Doha, and had established rapport with many of the players whom she interviewed and observed. That, along with her natural curiosity and tenacity, resulted in outstanding data that was key to the entire project.”

Harkness says that sports are often an empowering experience for young women in the region, noting how young women get inspiration from regional sports icons such as Fatima Al-Nabhani, an Omani tennis player who does not wear traditional Muslim dress during matches, and Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al-Ghasara, who was fully covered and wearing a hijab when she ran and won at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

“Both women not only serve as role models for aspiring female athletes from the region, but also shatter Western stereotypes,” says the report.

According to the report, “Middle-Eastern women are often lumped together as representing a collective whole, but this could not be further from reality. Indeed, many nations in the region are populated by expatriate women from other parts of the Middle East, as well as countries such as India, Sudan, and Ethiopia, making the notion of monoculture preposterous.”

What makes the research in Qatar particularly interesting, says Harkness, is the diversity represented in the country’s residents.

A single sports team can include as many countries of origin as it has players, each of whom must decide how they will dress and whether or not to participate publicly. At Education City’s universities for instance, a female basketball team could have members from Pakistan and Sudan to Egypt and the UK.

The Harkness-Islam collaboration is an example of Northwestern University in Qatar’s efforts to engage students in thought leadership initiatives that the media school pursues in Qatar and the region.

NU-Q dean and CEO Everette Dennis commented, “As Qatar develops as a world-class center for sport, Northwestern University in Qatar looks forward to examining the key role that the media play in connecting athletics to society. This report is an encouraging example of how our faculty and student body can collaborate to contribute to the thought leadership on issues that are important to Qatar and the region.”