Women lift veil on Asian sports mystery

DOHA: A Qatari nurse, who escaped the bloodbath of the Lebanon civil war, will be fighting a different battle at the Asian Games when she hopes to show that women’s sport in the Middle East is serious business and not just a half-hearted concession to the sensibilities of the west. 

With her striking looks, Nada Zeidan has become the poster girl of Qatar’s new-look sports frontier. 

Although she wears the traditional black abbaya, Zeidan is photographed without a veil, which would have been unheard of here 10 years ago. 

“I’m not going to sit at home watching TV and waiting for someone to get married to. Life is too short not to take advantage of everything it has to offer,” she said. 

Zeidan has already tried her hand at shooting, which she took up during her family’s stay in Beirut, and rally driving, but it’s in archery that she’ll compete in here having already formed part of Qatar’s first women’s Asian Games team in Busan four years ago. 

Qatar also entered a women’s team for the first time at the West Asian Games held here in 2005.  

There were women in swimming, athletics, shooting and bowling. However, out of the 1,011 competitors from 13 countries, only 92 were women. 

Qatar, which in 2003 saw its first ever woman elected onto the Doha municipal council, could do with a public relations good news story having come under intense international criticism recently over the plight of Hamda Fahd bin Jassem al-Thani. 

The woman, a member of the country’s ruling family, claimed she has been kept prisoner in her own bedroom where she has been beaten and starved for the shame she caused by fleeing Doha in 2002 to marry an Egyptian man.  

It’s been a tough road to the Asian Games for Qatar and for Middle East women. 

In 1998, the country hosted the first international athletics meeting to feature world class female competitors.  

But to quell unease amongst hardliners, the athletes were all ordered to wear long shorts instead of bikini bottoms and T-shirts rather than tight-fitting, skimpy tops. 

Some locals weren’t convinced.  

Reports suggested that coaches taking the women athletes to Doha’s showpiece Khalifa Stadium were stoned by youths. 

High-jinks, said organisers, but the international media couldn’t resist the temptation to combine words like stoning, women and the Middle East and contrive rather more menacing headlines. 

Meanwhile, Iran was due to send a record 20 women to Qatar but that figure was slashed by the decision taken by the country’s female karate team to boycott the event after the Asian Karate Federation refused to approve the wearing of headscarves during fights. 

Iranian female athletes in taekwondo will not be affected as fighters wear headguards that fully secure the headscarf in a fight. 

Nor will shooter Nassim Hassanpour, who became a celebrity two years ago when the then-teenager was the only Iranian woman competing at the Olympic Games. 

Afghanistan will be sending a women’s team for the second Games in succession. 

Their hopes lie with taekwondo fighter Roia Zamani, who won a bronze in the 72-kg middleweight division four years ago.  

Zamani, who wears a headscarf under her helmet, picked up the sport while living as a refugee on the Iranian border, a legacy of her family fleeing the Taliban regime.  

Away from the Asian Games, women from the region have suffered in international competition.  

Iraq’s top sprinter Alaa Jassim took part in the 100m heats at the Athens Olympics and clocked just under 13secs while Afghanstan’s Robina Muqim Yaar laboured over 14secs negotiating her heat.  

Yaar, who wore long lycra tights to cover her legs, was seventh but at least she wasn’t last. She was comfortably ahead of Fartun Abukar Omar of Somalia. 

Afghanistan saw their women make a short-lived debut in the judo event when 18-year-old Friba Razayee was defeated after 45 seconds of her under-70kg middleweight. 

“All the world knows that we are not strong like other athletes. But I tried my best,” Razayee said. – AFP 

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