Is Islam Compatible With Women's Sports, Fitness and Health?

As the Olympian winners savor their gold, silver and bronze medals and the London party winds down, I think much of the world is still perplexed by the intersection between Islam, women and sports.
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As the Olympian winners savor their gold, silver and bronze medals and the London party winds down, I think much of the world is still perplexed by the intersection between Islam, women and sports.

The global Muslim mosaic is multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic -- as are the women. In Bishkek, I met a vodka-drinking Krgyz woman with a doctoral degree. She defies the traditional stereotype of Muslim women -- and yet she views herself as a solid, observant, liberal Muslim who said to me: "I am every bit as Muslim as any other Muslim." She is a stark contrast to Saudi, Yemeni and Nigerian women controlled by the strict tenets of sharia.

Nine Muslim women contestants won medals in the London Olympics. They represented the world's Islamic spectrum. Their faith dictated their norms of dress, including the hijab which the Olympic committee compromised on for Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani from Saudi Arabia who competed in Judo.

Modesty, no doubt, is a vital tenet for conservative Muslim women -- many of whom do not want to negotiate the hijab, moderating their modesty, even as they participate in the Olympic Games. On the other hand, for Americans, modesty is of no import in the sports arena, where performance trumps all.

For me, the bottom line issue about sports for Muslim girls and women is how it impacts their fitness, health and well being. In strict sharia-driven societies, Muslim women are often deprived of exercise. A Human Rights Watch report, "Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women and Girls Rights to Sport in Saudi Arabia," highlights, "Gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia is institutional and entrenched. Millions of girls are banned from playing sports in schools and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools."

The big question is where does this conservatism come from? Are these views propagated by the Islamic faith or culture? The words and actions of Prophet Mohammed would suggest that these restrictive views on women's sports are inconsistent with the faith.

But not all countries we think of as being religiously dominated are in the anti-girls sports camp. In an article entitled, "Islam and Women's Sports," Gertrud Pfister explains Iran, where Muslim feminists claim that neither the Quran nor Muhammad's sayings prescribe women's exclusion from public life. Iranians support physical activity and good health for both sexes.

In fact, Iran has the distinction of being an enlightened forerunner in supporting women's sports as championed by Fa'ezeh Hashemi, daughter of President Rafsanjani. Almost 20 years ago, Hashemi initiated the first Women's Games in Iran (in 1993); and once again in 2005 when 1,700 athletes from 40 countries competed and 10,000 people attended -- while Saudi Arabia brings up the rear -- permitting women to participate this year in the 2012 Olympics.

When local culture wins, women mostly lose: Muslim women athletes are caught in the cross fire between faith and culture. If the latter is dominated by patriarchy, misogyny and tribal customs, the religious support for sports and good health is simply ignored. Muslim sociologists fight back by referencing Islamic sources in concluding sports for health should be mandated for women. The struggle is increasingly more between progressive sports loving Muslim women like Lina al-Maeena, founder of the Jeddah United basketball league, being pitted against regressive female sexuality/chastity advocates. These concerns are also tied closely to family honor which could be challenging as Muslim women forge new frontiers for themselves.

But what is the genuine Islamic tradition? What did the Prophet say about women and sports?

Ahmed Shihab Eldin, in "Saudi Arabia's Olympic Paradox: Insulting Women, Islam and "Prostitutes" on HuffPost, quotes a Saudi female friend questioning Saudi Arabia's interpretation of the faith: "To me it is a contradiction to Islam itself. The prophet said teach your children 3 things, archery, swimming and riding horse. ... Archery for being self-sufficient and getting food, riding horses for mobility and swimming for sport." The friend goes one step further and she says, "today's modern world equivalent -- getting a job, driving cars and sports in general -- are still restricted for millions of women."

This violation of religious tradition has serious consequences. It impacts women's ability to exercise, to compete in sports and most egregious of all is its detrimental impact on their health. Obesity of >25kg among 20+ years, is very high in Saudi Arabia: for men it is 70.2 percent and for women it is 73.2 percent -- but before we get too high handed, here is the comparative data set for American men 72.5 percent and for American women 66.3 percent (according to the WHO Global Status 2010 report). Better now than later for both nations to address this health hazard for both sexes.

Just to remind ourselves of Islam's origins and positions, I would like to revisit a story about Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha, a significant religious scholar. Aisha who loved games and sports says: "I raced with the Prophet and I beat him. Later when I had put on some weight, we raced again and he won. Then he said this cancels that (referring to the previous race)."

And finally, when in doubt, Muslims can again revert to the Prophet who is reported to have said: "And your body also has a right over you." This is the Islam of my youth. It is the Islam of sense, sensibility and spirituality -- a faith of moderation, a way of life which also believes in the oneness of humanity.

This blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist

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