You Came a Long Way, Habibiti! Female Muslim Olympians

Gary Greer 2/15/2022
Arab Culture

With the 2022 Winter Muslim Olympians now underway in Beijing, it also marks Saudi Arabia’s debut at the Winter Games. With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at some of the region’s most famous Arab athletes. More specifically, we’re going to focus on female Arab Athletes and how far they’ve come in the world of the Olympics. So, join us as we look at Arab women in sports.

Arab Women in Sports

Muslim women have been involved in the sport since Islam’s beginning in the early 7th century. However, Arab culture had long discouraged its women from playing sports. However, that all began to change during the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Muslim Olympians Games.  It was then that, as she entered the home stretch, a curly-haired runner quickly glanced left and right.  She wondered to herself where the other runners were. Then, with a beaming smile soon replaced by her look of disbelief, she realizes what’s happened. She has beaten the competition.

In 1984, Nawal El-Moutawakel, was the only female athlete on Morocco’s team at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that year. Still, it took her only 54.61 seconds to win the gold medal women’s 400-meter hurdles event. With tears in her eyes, the 22-year-old Casablanca ran a lap of honor, waving her country’s flag. And who could blame the tears? After all, she was the first Arab woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics.  Little did she know that she would also inspire future female Muslim Olympians to achieve even further sports milestones.

Other Olympian Arab Women Athletes

One example of an Arab Muslim female athlete who followed in El-Moutawakel’s footsteps is Algerian Hassiba Boulmerka. At the 1992 Olympic Games, she became the first Arab/African woman to win gold in the women’s 1,500m event. It was also Algeria’s first-ever Olympic gold medal. However, this win came at great costs. Hard-lined Islamist condemned both how she dressed and competed in shorts and a tank top and how she carried herself. This, in turn, only served to open doors to another debate on Muslim female athletes and the hijab.  Nevertheless, for others, Boulmerka became a symbol of a new Arab woman and a feminist hero.

Along with El Moutawakel and Boulmerka, there’ve been others in the ever-growing line of Arab women who’ve won Olympic medals. Of late, fourteen women from Muslim-majority countries won medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in a wide range of sports. That’s the most Arab females who’ve took part in and won medals in the Olympics 126-year history.

Most notable out of those was a female Egyptian athlete who competed in the “manly” sport of weightlifting. Yet, Sara Ahmed won bronze in the women’s 69kg weight class on Wednesday, lifting a combined weight of 255kg.  (She would finish behind China’s Xiang Yanmei who took gold and Kazakhstan’s Zhazira Zhapparkul, who claimed silver.) Still, the 18-year-old became the first woman from an Arab country to win an Olympic medal in weightlifting.

The Future Looks Bright for Arab Women Athletes

These days, more and more Arab nations are letting females enter the Olympics. Sarah Attar was one of the first two Saudi Arabia female Olympic athletes the country sent to the 2012 Olympics. The only other one from Saudi that year was judo entrant Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani.

Further, there’s a possibility of the Olympics taking place in the Arab world someday sooner than we may think. For example, Qatar made a bid for the 2020 Olympics, but was rejected until they do more for women athletes. Ever since then, Qatar has been striving to improve its image. As such, it has made a recent move to send more female athletes to the Games. Could an Olympic venue in the Middle east be far off?

So, in the end, who knows? Maybe in the next few years we can see an Olympic gold medal winning team of female Muslim soccer players from Bahrain. Even female Muslim badminton players at the Olympics would be a start.

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