The role of sports in the lives of Arab women


Arab women are often associated with inactivity in sports. There is a conviction especially in the Western world that women in Arab countries do not involve themselves with competitive sports especially at top levels. One of the factors that strengthen this notion is the failure by Arab women who migrate to countries such as the USA, Germany, France, and Britain to participate in sport. Although this notion is not accurate, it appears that the level of participation in sport by Arab women remains rather low. This situation is greatly contributed to by religious and cultural factors.

This paper hypothesizes that sport is slowly being integrated into the day-to-day lives of Arab Muslim women. Changes are being made to traditional attitudes towards engagement in physical activities among women, making it possible for the integration process to unfold. Today, it is possible for both veiled and unveiled women to take part in competitive sporting activities and at the same time maintain their Arab female identity. These changes constitute a new cosmopolitan attitude that is paving way for the emergence of a complex, multilayered modern identity. Moreover, for women, sport is a means of resistance or negotiation in efforts to reconstruct their roles as modern Muslim women within the public sphere. The aim of this paper is to examine the cultural narratives, context, heritage, and role of religion in constructing and reaffirming the roles of Arab women in the public sphere of sporting activities.

Literature review

In literature, the role of sports in the lives of Arab women is richly entangled with the wider theme of the place of women in the Arab/Islamic world. For instance, it is common for feminists and human rights activists to debate on whether the requirement for women to wear a veil is explicitly stated in the Koran or the Hadith.[1] In this argument, the feminists argue that by being compelled to wear the veil, Arab women end up being discouraged from participating in sporting activities both in competitive and non-competitive levels.

The literature has also generated the finding that the tendency by Arab women to shy away from sports and the subsequent dominance in sporting activities by men arises from a mixture of patriarchal traditions and Islamic teachings. In this patriarchal context, the dominant position is that women have to pay the price of subordination and dependence in return for the right to financial support and protection by the patriarch. In this environment of subordination, these women are barred from public life, which is defined by the Arab culture as the men’s domain.

To legitimize the subordinate roles of women, anecdotes from the Koran are normally sought. It is also common for Prophet Mohamed’s sayings to be invoked. These efforts are mostly being pursued in Arab countries that are governed by Islamic law or Sharia. In Iran, for example, the Islamic family law provides a framework for women’s involvement in sports. In most cases, this law has put in place numerous constraints on this involvement. Most of these constraints are rooted in Arab culture and Islamic fundamentalism.

Evidence of differences in cultural and religious convictions regarding women’s sport in the Arab world is also available. The understanding in this case is that attitudes of Muslim women in Arab countries towards various sporting activities vary depending on a number of factors. For example, those who live in the countryside are more likely to have a negative attitude towards outdoor sports such as football, volleyball, and basketball because of lack of exposure to the outside world that extends beyond their highly conservative neighborhoods.

In many Arab countries, women and girls are not prohibited from engaging in sports. In fact, many Islamic sport scientists emphasize on the importance for men and women alike to engage in various sporting activities with a view to achieve better health outcomes. Those who are keen to promote participation of women and girls in sports point out that Islam was originally positively inclined towards women’s participation in sports. This is true given that even today, Islam does not deny competitive sporting activities for women. In fact, it attributes numerous benefits to sport activities and physical strength. The Islamic religion consistently stresses the need to maintain cleanliness, purity, and health in one’s body, with care being taken to segregate the sexes. However, in the course of history, a number of religious elements that control access to sport by women such as Islamic fatalism have emerged.

In-depth analyses of Islamic authorities and sources create the impression that sport should be an obligatory undertaking for women for health reasons. However, in some Arab countries, sporting activities among women are taken to be irreconcilable with Islamic conceptions of femininity and Islamic values that emphasize on dependence and subordination. In this context, women’s activities are restricted to home and family affairs. Nevertheless, as the world continues to undergo an integration process that is increasingly leading to the emergence of a global village, an environment of antagonism that pits the forces of inclusion against those of exclusion of women in sports has emerged. In most Arab countries, the extent to which women are allowed to integrate into the global sporting community is often used as a yardstick for measuring the extent to which women have been empowered.

In today’s globalized world, there is a global craze for competitive sports where athletes are encouraged to break records. Women in Islamic countries have not been completely immune from this craze. However, whenever problems arise in the course of participation in sports, the women are expected to adhere to Islamic precepts during problem-solving. For instance, women and girls are often encouraged to cover their bodies as much as possible as a way of ‘segregating’ sexes. To this extent, rules concerning clothing play a critical role in hindering the freedom of movement among girls and women as well as their participation in sports.

The precept of virginity also plays an important role in discouraging women from participating in sports. Women are intensely afraid that the hymen might be subjected to damage during participation in sporting activities. Virginity is considered a fundamental pillar in marriage. A girl’s chances of getting married depend on her virginity. Therefore, many girls fear that any damage to the hymen may spell doom to their prospects of getting married some day. Other than the physical damage, many Muslim girls are afraid of being ‘masculinized’ both physically and mentally by sports. They are afraid that they may end up adopting masculine tendencies that may render them less desirable to members of the opposite sex.

Such constraints on women’s participation in sporting activities in the Arab world have in the recent years triggered awareness on the need to revolutionize the Arab culture and religious practices to bring them in tandem with the modern practices of a globalized world. Nevertheless, retrogressive practices by Islamic governments continue to reinforce the image of women as dependent and subordinate members of society. For example, until 1997, women in Iran had been banned from entering into stadiums to watch football matches. The ban was lifted after some 5,000 women matched into a stadium to watch the Iranian male national team following its victory over Australia. In 2001, during a World Cup match in which Iran played against Ireland, Iranian women were only allowed to watch the game on TV. In contrast, Irish women supporters were able to follow all the action live in the stadium. One of the reasons given for banning Muslim girls and women from watching the match from the stadium was that the sight of grown-up men in shorts was unbecoming for young girls and women. Arab men were also concerned that their women were likely to learn bad behavior such as profane swear words in the stadium.

Nevertheless, it is not true that Arab women only view sports through the lens provided by the Arab culture, religion, and values. Muslim women in the Arab world do not constitute a homogenous group; similarly, these women are not influenced by local religion and culture alone in their perceptions towards engagement in sport. Islam is interpreted through different ideological prisms in different parts of the Middle East and indeed across the Arab world. In some cases, these ideological differences are as varied as those of other religions, such that a Muslim woman may respond to Western practices in much the same way she would those of an ideological prism that deviates from her own understanding of the religion of Islam. Like in other parts of the world, local-global tensions play a critical role in influence the views of Muslim women regarding sport. These views are shaped in part by messages accessed through advertising, media, and travel. Therefore, it becomes possible for a researcher to interpret the understanding of sport in relation to social and personal worlds of ‘outsiders’ as well as those of fellow female Muslims.

Historical context

Throughout the history of the Arab world, local culture has been hostile towards women who spend more time outdoors than indoors. The image of an Arab woman has all along been that of a submissive, subordinate individual who depends on a paternal figure for her social and financial wellbeing. In recent times, the historical heritage of ‘segregation’ on the basis of sex in sports in the Arab world may be best emphasize by highlighting the example of the Pan-Arab Games that were founded in 1953.[2] Today, these games have come to be recognized as a reflection of gender-related tensions that continue to affect the pan-Arab dream of cultural and political unity. In the course of history, such conflicts have emerged in efforts to define the relationship between Islam and sport. Different interpretations have brought about different consequences for Muslim women.

During the twentieth century, many Arabs were forced by circumstances to migrate to non-Arab countries mostly in the West. Girls born to migrant families were compelled to draw lessons on how to engage in sports mainly from family members as well as a close-knit local Muslim community.[3] In most cases, these lessons have tended to deviate from those of conservative Islam that is dominant in most Arab countries. Such women were likely to be heavily influenced by Western lifestyles, hence they ended up embracing sports wholeheartedly.

At the same time, Western governments have in the past stoked conflicts with Muslim communities by passing laws that violate Islamic values. For example, the Muslim community has in the past decried the move by the French government to ban the use of all religious symbols including veils in state schools. This ban went a long way in raising awareness about religious tensions where minority Muslim communities feel discriminated against in matters of freedom of religious practice.

The practice of covering the female Muslim body with a veil is deeply rooted in both the religion of Islam and Arab traditions. For Muslims, the human body is historically viewed as a vehicle of cultural transmission. It provides a platform on which religious, social, and cultural values are embodied. Cultural values are used as a basis for legitimizing actions, appearance, and behaviors. In efforts to protect the unique identity of the Muslim girl or women, Arab countries have in recent years adopted a conservative approach, whereby exposure to Western culture is closely guarded. Governments of these Arab countries are aware of the profound influence that the Western culture is capable of exerting on other cultures. They would not want a similar fate to befall the Arab culture and religion especially with regard to the mode of dressing and behavior among Muslim girls and women.

Images of sportswomen from Western countries have greatly contributed to a tug-of-war over bodies of Muslim women and girls. In the Arab world, conservative Muslim clerics are opposed to body-hugging sportswear that tends to be highly sexualized.[4] They view it as a symbol of corrupt values and immodesty of Western societies. This tug-of-war has intensified throughout the 20th century mainly because the world has been moving closer towards becoming an integrated global society where events in one country have a profound influence on other countries. The West has been a very dominant player in this integration. Most Western countries have been promoting the notion that women’s sports are a reflection of freedom of choice, democratic values, and gender equality.

Among women in Arab countries, mixed sentiments have historically been expressed. Some women view the hijab (the veil) as a symbol of oppression while others have continued to view it as a symbol of the unique Islamic identity. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, women are mandated to wear the hijab in all public spaces. Those who are angry at this requirement have historically been afraid of speaking up because their anti-fundamentalist views may easily be interpreted as anti-Islamic sentiments, in which case the outcome would be an effort to ignite Western Islamophobia.[5]

Scope and methodology incorporating cultural theories to understand the hypothesis or the ramifications of it. Ex, trope of women as nation

A number of cultural theories have been propounded in efforts by anthropologists to establish an acceptable framework for explaining the circumstances in which Arab/Muslim women attempt to find their rightful place in the world of sport. The most dominant strands include liberal, Marxist, radical, and socialist theories.[6] Moreover, most recently, contemporary cultural theory of sport has focused largely on the relevance of physical education and sport for both men and women. In the case of women, this theoretical discussion continues to be intricately intertwined with that of feminism.

In feminist theory, focus is on gender relations in sport. Liberal feminism was derived from the Western liberal philosophy that may be traced back to the 17th century. During this time, there were demands for women to enjoy equal rights to those that men have traditionally been held by men. Consequently, essentialist conceptions of femininity and the dichotomy in which rationality was associated with male/masculine and emotionality with female/feminine were challenged. Today, liberal feminism borrows heavily from this line of thinking. Therefore, the theory emphasized on equal access to opportunity for both men and women in sport.

In radical feminism, oppression against women is blamed largely on patriarchy. Consequently, on the basis of this theory, conservative Muslim clerics are accused of perpetuating patriarchal cultural frameworks that make it virtually impossible for women to engage in sport. In contrast, In Marxist feminism, gender inequalities are attributed to capitalism, economic exploitation, and class divisions.[7] A crucial component of this theory is the sexual division of labor, which focuses on the unpaid domestic labor for women as well as the important, albeit unpaid-for, work of maintaining the future labor force through day-to-day care of male workers as well as childcare.

In socialist feminism, efforts are often made to highlight relationships between class and gender on the one hand and systems of patriarchy and capitalism on the other. In this case, a lot of emphasis is on the dynamics of gender and class relations. In social feminism, a major problem is on how to theorize the relationship between gender and class without giving one variable primacy over the other. Black feminists have been vehemently opposed to the ethnocentricity portrayed by white feminism. In the same vein, conservative Arab Muslim clerics are vehemently opposed to the imposing nature of Western conceptions of women’s participation in sport as a symbol of individual freedom, democracy, and modernity. A major advantage of social feminism is that it addresses differences among women and attempts to offer a comprehensive theoretical framework that addresses issues relating to race, class, and gender inequalities.

In the context of sport, socialist feminism explores the contribution made by women in providing service to both children’s and men’s sports. For example, in most societies, it is common for women to provide refreshments to male competitors. Women also wash sports for their spouses who happen to be sportsmen. They also transport their children to sporting events and give them moral support to encourage them to aim for victory. In the context of women’s sport in the Arab world, socialist feminism seems to provide the best platform for an analysis of the changing cultural practices as well as an investigation of how Arab women are increasingly embracing the world of sport.

Findings and analysis

From this discussion, it is evident that change is imminent in the Arab world as far as women’s participation in sporting activities is concerned. The world is moving towards integration and it is impossible for migrant Muslim women from the Arab world to be immune from Western (and oriental influences) as far as participation in sport and physical activities is concerned. This finding is reinforced by the argument that the Koran does not prohibit women from participating in sports. In fact, it obligates women to maintain good health, purity, and cleanliness, and one of ways of doing so is through participation in physical activities.

Nevertheless, it may be wrong to assume that Arab women will at one time abandon their Arab culture in preference for the Western culture. Even the liberal-minded Arab women who end up migrating to Western countries quickly realize that any efforts to abandon their Arab culture would leave them without any identity. Such a move would be frowned upon by even Western critics of the Islamic way of apportioning social roles to women and girls.

To best understand the changing viewpoint of many Arab Muslim women with regard to participation in sport, one may need to draw from the ideas promoted in socialist feminism theory. In this regard, the changes may be viewed as an embodiment of class, gender, and capitalistic struggled that are deeply embedded in cultural and religious traditions. This explains why, for example, differences tend to arise with regard to the extent of resistance to efforts by women to engage in physical activities. In many Arab countries, the level of conservative-mindedness varies depending on whether one has gained exposure to urban life or not. This is indicative of class differences in so far as the process of social change is concerned.

In the context of this social change, a new trend is likely to emerge where young girls depend on the counsel of their parents (as opposed to conservative Muslim clerics) on whether to engage in a certain sporting activity. In essence, this boils down to an emerging liberalist interpretation of Islam. As more and more Arab Muslims continue to migrate to urban areas and foreign countries, it is likely that the hard-line viewpoints that have traditionally acted as a barrier to women’s participation in competitive sports will be eased off.

It is also worthwhile to point out that the theme of changing views on the issue of women’s participation in sport in the Arab world is supported by the theory of post-structuralist feminism.[8] This theory challenges the masculine/feminine dichotomy and replaces it with that of multiple femininities as well as diverse identities and subjectivities. Through shared experiences, Arab women are gradually realizing that they have a lot in common with women from other parts of the world in their struggle for recognition in sport. They are being encouraged to view the issue not just through cultural and religious prism but also through the gender relations prism. Once this way of thinking permeates the entire Arab society, more women will be encouraged to engage in competitive sporting events.


In conclusion, it is true that sport is slowly being integrated in the lives of many Arab Muslim women. This is evident for women who live in urban areas within their home countries as well as those who have migrated to other countries. Their attitudes towards engagement in physical activities are gradually changing, thereby enabling them to participate more freely in these activities both for leisure and at the competitive level. These women are aware that it is possible them to adopt this stance while at the same time maintain a Muslim Arab female identity. This new cosmopolitan attitude will continue to guide these women in the arduous process of building a complex multi-layered modern identity. Moreover, it will enable them use sport as a tool of negotiation or resistance with a view to construct their roles as modern Muslim women within the public sphere.


Benn, Tansin, Gertrud Pfister and Haifaa Jawad. (Eds.) Muslim Women and Sport. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Henry, Ian, Mahfoud Amara and Mansour Al-Tauqi. “Sport, Arab Nationalism and the Pan-Arab Games.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 38, no 3 (2003): 295-310.

Kay, Tess. “Daughters of Islam: Family Influences on Muslim Young Women’s Participation in Sport.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 41, no. 3 (2006): 357-373.

Messner, Morgan. Sports and male domination: The female athlete as contested ideological terrain. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

Pfister, Gertrud and Ilse Hartmann-Tews. Sport and Women: Sport and Women: Social Issues in International Perspective. London: Routledge, 2003.

Scraton, Sheila and Anne Flintoff (Eds.). Gender and Sport: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Walseth, Kristin and Kari Fasting. “Islam’s View on Physical Activity and Sport: Egyptian Women Interpreting Islam.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38, no 1 (2003): 45-60.

[1] Pfister, Gertrud and Ilse Hartmann-Tews. Sport and Women: Sport and Women: Social Issues in International Perspective

[2] Henry, Ian, Mahfoud Amara and Mansour Al-Tauqi. “Sport, Arab Nationalism and the Pan-Arab Games.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 38, no 3 (2003): 295-310.

[3] Kay, Tess. “Daughters of Islam: Family Influences on Muslim Young Women’s Participation in Sport.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 41, no. 3 (2006): 357-373.

[4] Benn, Tansin, Gertrud Pfister and Haifaa Jawad. (Eds.) Muslim Women and Sport. New York: Routledge, 2011.

[5] Pfister, Gertrud and Ilse Hartmann-Tews. Sport and Women: Sport and Women: Social Issues in International Perspective. London: Routledge, 2003.

[6] Messner, Morgan. Sports and male domination: The female athlete as contested ideological terrain. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

[7] Scraton, Sheila and Anne Flintoff (Eds.). Gender and Sport: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[8] Walseth, Kristin and Kari Fasting. “Islam’s View on Physical Activity and Sport: Egyptian Women Interpreting Islam.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38, no 1 (2003): 45-60.

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