Gulf women aim to break down barriers

UAE swimmer Nada Albedwawi is one of several women blazing a trail, and braving some criticism, as they try to raise the profile of their sport in the Middle East.

Faye Hussain from Kuwait is competing in the Olympics under the Olympics flag as an independent athlete.   -  Getty Images

Nada Albedwawi dreams of one day swimming on a relay team but she knows that can only happen if enough other Emirati women take the plunge. In a socially conservative region, where women's competitive sport faces significant cultural obstacles, the only female swimmer competing for the United Arab Emirates at the Rio Olympics remained undaunted on Friday.

“My main goal is to break down these barriers, these gender barriers, and pave the way for other female swimmers,” said Albedwawi after her 50m freestyle heat. “Especially in our country, people are reluctant to start something new. “So when they see there is already a female swimmer who has been to the Olympics they will be much more encouraged to do so.”

Albedwawi is one of several women blazing a trail, and braving some criticism, as they try to raise the profile of their sport in the Middle East.

Faye Husain is a Kuwaiti swimmer competing as an independent athlete under the Olympic flag, due to the country's suspension, while Bahrain and Qatar are also represented in the pool. “We have great facilities, it's just a matter of accessing them,” Husain, who has been training at college in the United States for the past four years, told Reuters. “There's always going to be some grumblings of opposition but I don't pay attention to it.”

Saudi Arabia, where women are barred from driving and subject to gender segregation and a restrictive male guardianship system, is unlikely to join them anytime soon. In a sport of body-hugging swimsuits and exposed flesh, that remains a step too far.

However, the country has quietly entered four women in Rio in running, fencing and judo after two made an historic debut in London four years ago. Albedwawi said her parents and the UAE authorities had been supportive of her efforts but there was work to be done.

“We are going to slowly start to change the mentality,” the first-year student of NYU Abu Dhabi said after finishing 78th of 88 starters. I know some of my friends who really wanted to pursue sports but because of cultural barriers and stuff, weren't able to.”

Positive reaction

Albedwawi said the reaction on social media had been overwhelmingly positive. “I would see 100 positive comments and maybe just one negative comment,” she said. “And that's way better than in Saudi Arabia where some of the people reacted negatively to the four women representing them at this Olympics. So I am really proud of my country and its people.

“I was really delighted when I saw the four (Saudi) women at this Olympics. Hopefully they are going to pave the way for girls in these sports. Maybe swimming is a little bit harder to convince but we'll get there one day.”

And the relay?

“I was just talking with my coach about it yesterday,” she smiled. “Hopefully we will get back with a relay team and get the gold.”

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