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Prez of Qatar Women’s Sport Committee talks sport development and wonders: Why all the fuss about full-body covering?

May 26, 2010 – 4:51 AM

By Laura Pappano

Ahlam Al-Mana, is president of the Women’s Sport Committee in Qatar, which was formed in 2000 and is part of Qatar’s Olympic Committee. Al-Mana, who played handball at Qatar University, earned her degree in physical education. FGN spoke with Al-Mana at the 5th World Conference on Women & Sport held last weekend in Sydney.

Ahlam Al-Mana

FGN: Has it been hard to recruit girls and women to play sports in Qatar?

AA-M: In the beginning, it was very difficult for us. The culture didn’t allow girls to go out and play sports. We started by using the facilities in the schools because it is very easy to go to parents that way. For example, we say, “Your daughter is talented in the sport and we would like her to join us.” In Qatar [in the beginning] people didn’t know about the importance of sport for women, about the Olympic Games.

FGN: How can you change this?

AA-M: The Asian Games were organized in Qatar in 2006 and there were 11 sports for women. We had 46 players. It was very big. It made a huge change in the mentality of the parents. Now many parents bring their girls to participate. They say, “It is our dream to see our girls playing in the Olympics.”

FGN: Probably the issue that most crosses Westerner’s minds when Muslim women play sports is the matter of dress. Is it possible to compete while respecting religious rules requiring the body to be fully covered?

AA-M: There are now many countries that issue special clothes for the Muslim countries. There are many companies working on special [sport] clothes. We saw Cathy Freeman [she won the 400 meter race in Sydney in 2000 wearing a track suit that covered her head and full body, not for religious reasons but because it was her preference]. She covered all her body. And she won! She won the Gold Medal!

Here is the problem. The rules of FIFA [international governing body of soccer] they stopped the Iranian women’s team from playing one month ago. They had the qualifications, but because they wear a cover they could not play. That is not fair for the Muslim players. They should be able to participate in the World Cup with covering. You can participate if you want to wear shorts. You should be able to participate if you wear long covering. Maybe there is a difference for your results, but it should not be a technical rule. [FIFA has since agreed to an acommodation, allowing players to wear caps that cover their hair].

Olympic Gold Medalist Cathy Freeman

FGN: Will you have many athletes in the 2012 Olympics in London?

AA-M: I hope we will have girls in shooting and fencing. I have a very good shooter who is 14 and a very good fencer who is 16. But there is one thing about our country – we are the beginners in sport. Of course the Olympic Games is a dream for everyone. We have everything – financing, support – everything, but we may miss the qualifications. We have girls that are good but they are not at the level to qualify. I hope the IOC [International Olympic Committee] would give the beginner countries the chance – especially for the women. If girls have the chances to compete, they can be a model for the other ones.

FGN: Because organized sports are so new, how do girls decide which sports to play?

AA-M: We use the results of talent tests. Every year a girl takes a test. They have a special test with many parts. They test how she throws, how she runs, how high she jumps. This is the general test and through this they choose which sport.

FGN: Where do athletes train? Which sports do they participate in?

AA-M: We have three centers [Aspire Academy] and we have 11 or 12 sports. We have handball, volleyball, table tennis, basketball, and football [soccer]. And some others. (See photo of Hissa Darwish and Mayi Al-Mohammadi, who work with talented 11-year-old girls at Aspire Academy).

FGN: Thank you very much.

AA-M: Thank you.

Hissa Darwish and Mayi Al-Mohammadi work with talented 11-year-old girls at Aspire Academy

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