Fear of erosion (

“Sport has the power to break stereotypes,” says Qatari hurdler Mariam Farid.

Photo: imago/Chai v Laage

Fatma runs a martial arts studio in a shopping mall in Qatar’s capital, Doha. The mirrors on the wall are freshly cleaned, the mats on the floor still smell new. Fatma wipes the sweat from her forehead. She has just driven three girlfriends to peak performance. “Through sport, I can push my physical limits,” says Fatma. “It gives me security in other areas of life. My grades at university have gotten better.«

Fatma is in her early twenties and doesn’t want to give her real name. She likes to talk about her sports, muscle groups and body intervals. With her hands she describes her fighting techniques. But their passion can quickly turn – in frustration, sometimes in resignation. Fatma is the head of the gym, unofficially. A photo of her must not appear, not in the entrance area, not on the Internet. “My father and my brothers don’t want me to be photographed or filmed doing sports,” says Fatma. ‘They think it puts me on display. They demand discipline.” Fatma used to like playing football as a child, she was one of the greatest talents. She has received several requests for the Qatar women’s national team. She had to refuse several times, because cameras are not forbidden for the national team.

The men’s World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday. Since the award in 2010, the emirate has been under international observation. Local society is shaped by Wahhabism, a traditionalist interpretation of Sunni Islam. Fatma felt this in her childhood. As a teenager, she can only use her cell phone to make calls, the apps are blocked. Her brothers pay attention to her clothes, appraise her friends. “I felt oppressed in every respect,” says Fatma. »I have the feeling that my childhood has just come to an end.« These limitations have consequences, Fatma develops eating disorders and suffers from depression.

But then Fatma begins her studies at an American university that has a branch in Doha. In the canteen she gets into conversation with students from all continents. Many Qatari women do not wear the abaya, the traditional black clothing that also covers their hair. Fatma takes advantage of the sports facilities at the university. She is among the best in basketball and soccer. But a career as a professional athlete remains barred to her. “Men aren’t allowed to watch the games in our football league,” she says. ‘It’s like an airport. Cameras and cell phones are not allowed. And parents usually prevent their daughters from training regularly at a very early age.«

In Qatar, sport is a symbol of the status of women. They often need to get permission from a male guardian. Even if they want to work in a public job. According to Anna Reuss, who researches the foreign policy of the Gulf States at the University of the German Armed Forces in Munich, they are laws of the state that meet with approval in large parts of patriarchal society: “In Qatar, the family is usually considered the smallest common social unit. Even if the woman contributes a lot to the income, she is not seen as the head of the family, but rather as a mother.«

Sports activities for women are not as important in Qatar as they are in Western societies. For decades there were hardly any rooms in which they could spend themselves without traditional clothing, which is one of the reasons why they often suffer from obesity, diabetes and depression. “Many people fear the erosion of these traditional patterns of identity,” says Reuss. In Qatar, female athletes are sometimes regarded as “strong women in a negative sense”.

The government wants to do something to counteract this perception. In the geopolitical competition with its neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar is dependent on networks with the USA and Europe. Therefore, the regime cultivates the narrative of the “strong woman” and refers to female leaders in administration and culture. “The Qatari state wants to draw a nuanced picture of responsible women,” explains Reuss. “Images of sweaty soccer players embracing after a goal can help.”

Positive images that go around the world. For this reason too, the authoritarian rule of Qatar is organizing one sporting event after the next, such as the 2019 World Athletics Championships. At that time, the Qatari hurdler Mariam Farid was there. She well remembers how some Western journalists approached her after her race. “I had no chance of a medal, but I topped my personal best,” she says. Nevertheless, the reporters were only interested in her headscarf.

Mariam Farid is an articulate woman in her mid-20s. She is giving the interview in a Doha hospital. After studying communications, she works here in the press department. But her passion is sport. Farid played soccer, went swimming and decided to do athletics. Speaking four languages, she was appointed an official ambassador for the IAAF World Championships: »A lot of people in the West tell us that the Middle East is closed and that we should open up. Yet these same people refuse to recognize signs of progress. Sport has the power to break such stereotypes.«

Many people in Europe perceive the Middle East as a unified region. With Qatar they associate desert, camels, wealth from oil. And women who – if at all – make it to the top against all odds. Farid shows her more than 100,000 followers on Instagram that reality is more complicated. She knows what questions might come from Western journalists, so she gives the answer beforehand: »I used to not wear the hijab in sports, but I didn’t feel very comfortable with it. Now I’m wearing it, I’m different and I’m proud of that.”

The opportunities that Mariam Farid has in sport were unthinkable for her mother and grandmothers. From the 1990s, the once sleepy Qatar wanted to free itself from the economic and military dependence of its neighbor Saudi Arabia. The emirate opened up to investors and strove for sporting events. At the beginning of the millennium, Musa bint Nasser al-Missned, the second wife of the then Emir, initiated the founding of the Women’s Sports Committee. This organization should work “for gender equality in sport”.

Even then, Qatar’s major goal was to host the men’s soccer World Cup. But in order to be accepted by Fifa, applicants had to prove that they supported girls and women. In 2009, for example, a women’s football team was founded in Qatar. In October 2010 she played her first international match. A month and a half later, the 2022 Men’s World Cup was awarded to Qatar.

The »Aspire Academy«, one of the most modern sports academies in the world, is located in Doha and focuses on male talent. The women’s sports committee is housed outside of it. Photos of female athletes hang on the walls, cups and medals are displayed in glass cases. How serious is the promotion? The women’s national soccer team is hardly active and is not included in the FIFA world rankings.

Qatar is seen as a model of progress in the Gulf region, while women’s participation is even more restricted elsewhere. European women’s rights groups such as Discover Football and Right To Play have been using football to strengthen women’s rights in the Middle East for years. They would also like to establish networks in Qatar. But the ruling house does not tolerate a critical civil society. Women’s rights organizations in Doha? Are still pure utopia.

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