A little over forty-eight hours before stepping out onto Doha’s Qatar Sports Club track, two remarkable athletes from different corners of the earth came together for a frank and open discussion that explores the challenges and cultural perceptions surrounding Arab female sports participation.
In an inspirational behind-the-scenes film released yesterday by the Doha Diamond League, aspiring Qatari sprinter Mariam Farid and Olympic bronze medallist in the steeplechase Emma Coburn from the United States address the impact of religious misconceptions on the portrayal of Muslim women in sport. The importance of positive female role models in helping to break down barriers and inspire more girls to play sport is a shared passion to come out of their in depth conversation.
In spite of her background, beliefs and cultural expectations, Mariam is shaping a new path for Arab women in sport, a journey she hopes will inspire others like her to follow their dreams. When asked by her fellow runner, how other young women in Qatar can take inspiration from her story, she said: “I’m very proud that I’m different to a lot of people and I think that’s important. What I am doing is not common in my culture and is proving some people wrong. You have to be strong and very confident and be determined to become a champion one day.”
Emma, who grew up in a rural area of Colorado, in very different circumstances to her new friend was equally honest in a poignant and thought provoking conversation: “My initial impression was just that there were not many Arab women competing in sport, but I believe that is starting to change. We need more strong female role models like Mariam who can push the boundaries of cultural acceptance and inspire the next generation of women to follow in her footsteps.”
The film’s release coincided with the news that basketball has changed headgear rules in a move that will allow players to wear hijabs in competition. Previous rules had banned the practice, over what world governing body FIBA said was a safety issue, which had led to Qatar women’s team withdrawing from the 2014 Asian Games after being denied permission to wear the traditional covering.
For Mariam, the decision will embolden more local women to participate in sport: “For me, athletics and sport in general is all about breaking down barriers, rather than putting them up” she said, adding, “Many people see the hijab as a symbol of division, but instead we should celebrate our differences and ability to come together through our shared love of sport. I welcome this decision by FIBA as it represents yet another barrier broken down that will inspire participation in my country.”
Emma, who tried a hijab on when visiting Mariam’s home in a symbolic moment of unity between two contrasting cultures added:
“When I spent the day with Mariam it struck me how her hijab was an integral part of her identity. Like my hair is to me, it forms a key element of who she is as a person and is integral to her confidence.”
She continued: “While we dress differently, it is clear that there is so much more uniting us than separating us. In a single visit to Mariam’s home we have forged a friendship and understanding that has highlighted our similarities, rather than our differences.”
At the conclusion of their conversation Mariam and Emma headed to Doha’s Qatar Sports Club track for a training session ahead of yesterday’s Diamond League opener. The two shared tips and techniques as they prepared for the first competition of the new season and by the end of the day had built a close bond, united by their burning spirits to be champions.
Qatari sprinter Mariam Farid and Olympic bronze medallist Emma Coburn.