By Laura Pappano
If you are a girl in the United Arab Emirates the opportunity to play a sport, to compete, to be part of team faces barriers – but the situation is improving, says Mariam Al Omaira of the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi. Omaira, 28, spoke with me at the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport in Helsinki about her own experiences and the changes and challenges for female athletes in the UAE.
FGN: How did you get interested in playing sports?
MAO: In schools we do have physical education. I started with football (soccer). We used to play with my cousins who are mostly boys and create competitions behind my grandfather’s house.
FGN: Aren’t girls and boys barred from playing together in the UAE?
MAO: Because it was with our cousins it was fine. Cousins and neighbors are allowed. If it were in school or a more public setting that is a problem.
FGN: Were there many sports opportunities for you?
MAO: We did have [sports] clubs during that time, but they all focused on getting the boys involved rather than the girls. Girls were meant to study and get married and stay at home. I started playing football, and I did gymnastics and then I wanted to do ice hockey. I attended an American International School and that is where my passion really grew.
FGN: But your parents didn’t want you to play…?
MAO: It was very difficult for me to convince them. They said, “no.” In 10th grade, I just went to the tryouts without telling them. I made the soccer team. I told them, ‘I am going to be playing sports. Take away anything you want” [as punishment]. They said, “Fine you can play.” Throughout high school I played soccer, volleyball, and basketball.
FGN: And in college?
MAO: I moved to university – AUS [American University of Sharjah] — and Sharjah is one of the more conservative emirates. I really wanted to play soccer. They told us that if you get the approval of the students and the faculty in the university you could play. I wrote a petition and went through the student center and got most of my friends and the faculty to sign on. That’s what it took to get a soccer team [for women] at the university.
FGN: And how was play in the university?
MAO: In 2005, we had the first national team for women. We played a friendly game with them and after they asked me to join. I went back home and asked my parents and they said, “No, What will we tell our family?”
FGN: The Ladies Sports Academy was started in 2010 and there is under construction a large facility for women to gather and play sports, to attend seminars about training and nutrition. Why is this needed?
MAO: We do have public sports parks, but it is very uncommon or unlikely for us [women] to go out and participate or randomly go on for a pick up game. There are no university degrees in sport science.
FGN: You have said that barriers to sport are not so much religious as cultural, as families not wanting or finding it proper for girls to play sports.
MAO: It is not religious. As long as you are covered up, you are good to participate. Culture interferes a lot with development. In the past three years, it is changing. Even my family is changing and they are starting to accept it. I would love for us to get to the point where the family becomes more understanding that sports can become a career path for their daughters. Whether they engage in sports in being in administration or as referees or volunteers, it would allow us to participate in more international events. If they accept that it is allowed, we can develop sports in a proper way.