After Shinoona Al Habsi entered London’s Olympic Stadium four years ago with nerves so turbulent she found her body “dancing, more than shaking,” and after she ran the 100 meters for her native Oman – in a brisk 12.45 seconds, fourth place in her qualifying heat – and after she gathered are-you-kidding experiences such as stretching near men’s sprinter Usain Bolt, she returned home and heeded a norm.
She got married in December 2013.
Twenty-six months later, she heeded another norm.
She gave birth to a son in February 2016.
This spring, the norms yielded. Al Habsi actually returned to training, eyeing future international competitions. The very sight of her struck some witnesses as shocking in a culture in which sport is an occasional frivolity girls (and often boys) quit when they start real life.
“Now when I’m back [training] they tell me, ‘What are you doing!’ ” Al Habsi said.
As some coaches and governments in the Middle East aspire to raise top-flight female athletes and as they hope for more women in general to partake in recreational sports, it was telltale that even in the midst of a sport, a mother back at training doubles as a marvel. It illustrated the natural discord between the concept of female athletes and norms such as marriage and childbirth and how expectations from families and cultures can thwart athletic pursuits.
Against the varying cultural grains of the region, athletes such as Farida Osman, an Egyptian student and championship swimmer at the University of California who will compete at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next month, require a crucial boon: staunch family support. Osman’s parents, both Cairo dentists, endorse her persistence even at an age (21) when most childhood teammates have stopped, and her London-based brother, Ahmed, flew clear to Atlanta in March to cheer Farida at the NCAA championships.
Al Habsi has a further boon: staunch husband support.
When she returned from London to Oman, she did what she thought she was supposed to do after marriage. She stopped running – for a year. She got sick repeatedly. A doctor deduced she kept getting sick because she was a runner who wasn’t running. As she recollects, her husband, Ali Al Mabsali, a petroleum engineer and a soccer nut, told her, ” ‘I married you. You are an athlete. I know you are an athlete. I married an athlete and a lady. Not a lady who sits at home.'”
Her many relatives long since knew what her husband meant. She ran with such dispatch as a child that when her family would ask her to run errands, she would run the errands. She ran competitively as a teenager even though the rarity of it worried her mother – “Why this? Why are you going there?” – until she vowed to sneak out if necessary. “When I am running,” Al Habsi said, “I feel that I have everything that I need. This feeling. What can I tell you, this feeling?”
Said her 25-year-old aunt, Maryam Al Shukairi: “In our family, no one’s stopping her. Some of them, like my aunt, the sister of my father, sometimes they’re asking, ‘Why she’s doing that? Till when she’s doing that? She’s a lady! She’ll be getting married. She will have the kids. Will she continue to do that?’ And we are replying them, ‘It is important to her. If she wants to compete, even if she will be having a hundred children, it is depending on her.'”
Aunt and niece, so bonded that some relatives think they have their own dialect, laugh serially as they tell paragraphs-long stories about the cultural rarity. They laugh as Maryam recollects when the family – Shinoona has 10 siblings and is the first of the 32 grandchildren of Maryam’s parents – squeezed in around the TV to watch Shinoona in London, noticed her nervousness and instructed to the TV, “Concentrate!” They laugh about the soccer zeal of their husbands, whom they sometimes try to outrace to the TV remote.
They know that having a runner in the family provides a rare window on people’s reactions. Maryam explains that because her parents hail from Tanzania, the cultural rules might soften slightly as opposed to “the pure Omani,” where “more of the things are, ‘No, no, no,’ ” she said. She tells of the greater strictness of rural areas. She also says that, even in her job as a nurse, she had to reassure colleagues who fretted, erroneously, that Shinoona’s training might leave her moored in some far-flung place, chronically separate from her family.
Some husbands nowadays, Maryam said, “are accepting whatever is your hope. ‘Your hope is this and this and this? Do it.’ They are not stopping us.” She added, “They don’t know the other husbands!” She mentioned one friend who has foregone the wives’ lunches out because her husband forbids it.
Even liberal readings of marital and motherly duties in the region can leave little room for sports or exercise.
“For my mother-in-law, it was something crazy!” Samar Nassar said. “She used to tell my husband, ‘Are you married to get children or for your wife to swim?'” Yet after she swam for Palestine in the 2000 Olympics, got married to a supportive husband, swam for Jordan in the 2004 Olympics, and as she heads the organizing committee for Jordan’s upcoming Under-17 Women’s World Cup in soccer, her mother-in-law has become “my biggest support,” she said.
“I can say I come from a relatively liberal family,” she said, “but still, we are governed by our culture and our norms, and despite being a liberal family and being married to a liberal husband, there are still cultural expectations for a girl who is in school or a married woman. For me to be able to swim when I was engaged and married, everything had to be perfect at home. I didn’t give a chance for anybody to talk about, to interfere in my swimming.
“So I was up at 5:30 in the morning [to train, before her husband woke]. I made sure that lunch was at the table at 1 o’clock. And our lunches in Jordan are not the typical, easy-to-whip-up meals. They’re all vine leaves and stuffed courgettes, so I had to make sure that lunch was on the table, and I had to make sure at night I’m dressed up and tip-top for the social events and gatherings and sleeping at 12 a.m. and then up by 5:30 a.m.
“To strike that balance and make sure that nothing gives, whether on the social front or the family or my obligations or my swimming, it was tough. But it’s doable. . . . For a woman, a married woman, that was really pushing the boundaries, but everything is doable with a supportive husband.”
Often, sport never even gets to vie with marriage or motherhood. It long since has conceded to a third force also deemed mandatory for girls: education.
As Hassan Afifi, a 41-year-old Egyptian, gave up his dreary finance job in London, rediscovered his abs and started a pro triathlon team called Alameda o.n., he took aim at what he considers a counterproductive view of women’s capabilities. “I have a girl and a boy,” he said, “and for me the thing that would kill me is if my daughter one day comes to me and says, ‘I cannot do this because I’m a girl.’ ”
He couldn’t find Arab women in triathlon, so he hired some elite female triathletes to mentor a developmental team of girls and one woman, 26-year-old Bahraini former Olympic swimmer Sameera Al Bitar, who has veered into triathlon. Afifi knows the girls might absorb all the time and tutelage yet still eventually peel off, their participation losing out to cultural obligation.
Telling a recent story, he said, “It was as if someone stabbed me. I was at the sports club in Cairo. I found an old university friend of mine. Very open place and everything and open-minded people around. And this is someone I studied economics with at university, and she was there because her daughter was doing swim practice. And I was chatting with her; we haven’t spoken in about 15 years. ‘How are you, blah-blah-blah.’ ‘This is my daughter in the water.’
“And I’m looking, ‘Wow, she’s amazing. She’s really talented.’ ‘Yeah, in competition she won her age group, and she came second in the nationals and stuff.’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, this is amazing. She’s only 12,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, does she enjoy it? Does she want to become a champion?’ And she says, ‘No, no, no, no. I’m not going to put those ideas in her head.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Oh, well, if it’s her brother, it’s fine, but for her, no, she’s going to go to university and get married.’ I’m like, ‘No! No! Why did you say that!’ ”
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, has won 14 women’s medals in its Olympic history; Turkey has won nine. Algeria’s first gold medal came from Hassiba Boulmerka, who won the 1,500 meters at Barcelona in 1992 despite a local imam’s publicized objection to her clothing in track and field. Syria’s lone gold medal came from Shada Ghouaa at Atlanta in 1996 in the heptathlon, and Habiba Ghribi became the first Tunisian female to win a medal, a silver in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at London in 2012.
Afifi summarized: “You get every year, you have maybe three or four Arab athletes, female athletes, who go to the Olympics, they do something great. . . . But they’re individuals. And if you look, it’s not the system that made them. They made themselves by themselves, and they defied all kinds of challenges and everything. And this is not what we want to do.”
Osman, the Egyptian swimmer at the University of California, has become the Pacific-12 Conference champion in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly and has anchored two NCAA champion relays. She states with her customary cheer, “I want to be the first female Egyptian to win an Olympic gold medal.” She might have kept it at “medal.” Egypt has appeared at Olympics since 1912, with 26 male medals, zero female.
“In swimming,” Osman said, “girls usually stop by the age of 16 or 18, maximum. And this is where they start either focusing on academics or maybe like getting married. Yeah, this is the age where everyone just stops swimming. I’m one of the few people who continue until now. My team used to be, like, 20, and now we’re only like two or three who keep on swimming until now. I’m definitely the only girl, in my age group at least.
“I feel like, when we’re young and growing up, I feel like families encourage sports, but then when it starts having interference with school or other important things, they just stop straightway. They don’t really know how to balance both. They always have to choose one over the other.”
The complementary possibilities of sports and academics did occur to Hadia Mohammed Mustafa, an Omani mother of two sons and a daughter, all of whom excelled at tennis with her guidance. Her sons study for advanced degrees in Scotland and Paris, and her daughter, Fatma Al Nabhani, ranked No. 391 in the world in the hard wilds of tennis.
“For example, when first my mom started, her friends and family, they would tell her, ‘You are crazy! What are you doing?’ ” Al Nabhani said. ” ‘This is the future of the kids, being here and focusing on their study! What will tennis ever do for them?’ But they didn’t understand that also tennis could be a future, because through tennis, they went to the college, they got scholarships, you know, to play for the universities and stuff, so this is the future as well. And the biggest example, my brother, he was a professional player and now he’s finishing his Ph.D.”
She said, “My mom is very strong,” and, “I hope I do at least a tiny, small change, that people think I changed their thinking.”
Their shared accomplishment as coach-mother and player-daughter magnifies when considering that, as a girl, Al Nabhani lacked the kind of ready rivals who can help a teenager build toward the brutal international terrain. In the Middle East, girls who persist often know a lonely persistence.
“To be honest, when I was younger, if I ever knew that there was a female athlete that made it professionally and you are able to do it and reach toward those goals, I would have been more confident of myself and knowing of myself, ‘Oh yeah, I can do it,’ ” Al Nabhani said. “But being the only one and the first to take this experience, it was really tough.”
Said Osman, “Two years before I came to Cal, I was actually swimming alone. It was actually kind of boring.”
California, then, “was so different,” she said. “Because, you know how when you’re swimming alone, the coach usually just has practices for you? . . . So it was definitely hard at the beginning. I was definitely struggling, just making the intervals or just being at their level in practice. I used to probably cry every other week because it was really hard. Just like, I never practiced at 5 a.m. back home.”
In Cairo, where she swam for a club in the upscale Zamalek district, she would swim at a more genteel 4 p.m.
“When Farida arrived at Cal, she was inexperienced and not a very good trainer,” said Teri McKeever, California’s coach. “She didn’t have a lot of knowledge of the sport, swimming techniques or racing strategies. She had never trained with other top athletes, so she wasn’t aware of what she needed to know. Farida has developed into a great racer and is someone you know will bring her best in meet situations.”
For the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, at age 25, Osman says, “Definitely.”
For the 2024 Olympics, at 29, she says, “That would be, like, wow.”
“The Egyptian culture, you need to be married at a certain age,” she said, laughing again. “Twenty five is like, ‘You’re late. Why are you not married until now?’ ” Next come children: “Egypt, it’s like, you have to!” she said, laughed, and said that while you don’t have to hurry, people do start asking.
“I definitely want to be a mom,” she said. “I don’t know when, exactly.”
Across the region, a woman who is already a mother could represent Oman in the Olympics. It just won’t be the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Having just given birth in February, Al Habsi doesn’t want to show up subpar. She wants to regain tip-top form, then resume international competition. She scoffs at the 12.45 seconds she ran in London four years ago. “I’m faster now, 11.60,” she wrote in a text. She’s hoping for ample doubters. She does love those.
“I will show everyone,” she said.
Muslim countries from the Middle East might send an unprecedented number of female competitors to next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the support of other women and a growing number of men, they have widened the cultural possibilities about the role of women in their societies, including standards about when they should marry, how soon they should start a family and what they should wear while competing. This series is about the courage and perseverance of female athletes in one of the last regions on Earth to celebrate them.