The 1400-Year Hurdles
I’m no sporty spice but when I was offered a chance to write the catalogue essay for Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sport – Brigitte Lacombe’s exhibition of photographs of athletic Arab bints it seemed like a fun gig. Below is the essay for those unable to go or get their paws on a catalogue. If you’re in London, I highly recommend you go see the show at the Sotheby’s Gallery.
The 1400-Year Hurdles
“Come, let us have a race.” – The Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) to his wife Aisha
We begin with the figure of a woman running in the sand. Her name is Aisha, it is a Saturday in the year 624.
She is riding with her husband and his followers to a battle at the wells of Badr somewhere southwest of Medina. Suddenly, her husband Mohamed (PBUH) orders the rest of their war party to carry on ahead. He holds back the young Aisha and quite unexpectedly, he challenges her to a race. Not just any race – a sprint on foot. At this time, Aisha is lithe and fit. She dismounts her camel with a swoop and leaves the Prophet in her dust, bolting long lengths towards the horizon.
This famous anecdote told and retold by the Prophet’s companions (and alternately confirmed and refuted by scholars) is one of three historic races I will write about herein. It’s an oft-told story that is so frequently invoked as a rebuttal in debates about the status of women in Islam that I’d be hesitant to mention it at all were it not the perfect companion to the subject of this essay, this book and this exhibition: Arab women in sport.
When used individually each of these words (that is, Arab – Women and Sport) are loaded with contention. To combine these three is to invoke a polarizing triumvate of emotional, political and religious triggers that make the subject difficult to write about.
Few would argue that in the contemporary world there is no body submitted to more scrutiny, burdened with more metaphorical significance or less understood than that of ‘the Arab woman’. It’s important to note that the Arab woman when used in such debate exists more as an amalgamated concept than she does any actual unified group. This ‘body’ has become a cultural battleground wracked by the sea changes of constant debate that alternately exhalts and degrades. Within the Arab context, ‘our’ bodies are obsessed over as vessels for impossible ideals like honor and within the western context ‘our’ bodies are symbolic sites of oppression.
Neither of these positions acknowledges the agency, the spirit or the will of women as individuals, or in the case of sports, as competitors capable of incredible strength and endurance.
The success of Arab female politicians, activists or even artists is often based on their ability to separate their womanhood from their functionality in a male-dominated environment. In this way, sport and the body of the female athlete becomes the purest symbolic battleground for feminism simply because it is impossible to divorce the individual athlete from her body.
At least this seems to be the case in the following two stories.
Los Angeles, August 8, 1984 – It’s the final of the women’s 400 metre hurdles. Moroccan Nawal El Moutakawel, tents herself in a green Adidas tracksuit and stretches in the afternoon sun. Having trained on the beaches outside Casablanca, Nawal is running this race for her country, to prove the world wrong.
In a few minutes time she will win the first Gold Medal ever by an Arab female and the first ever for Morocco. She will lap the stadium with the red Moroccan flag streaking behind her like a flaming mane. She will go home to adoring crowds in her home. Hailed as a heroine, every female baby born on that day would be named in her honor.
Exactly eight years later, the second event takes place in Barcelona, August 8, 1992 – This time the women’s 1500 meter run. Hassiba Boulmerka from Algeria steps lightly to the starting line and bows in wait for the gun. She has had to train away from home after a storm of death threats from Islamists who took issue with her bare legs at the previous year’s World Championship in Tokyo.
Since then, she must be escorted to and from practice and the race that day by armed guards. She is running this race for herself, to prove her country wrong.
When she pulls into the lead, a final 200 m dash, she doesn’t fall across the finish line, she leaps into it. Like El Moutakawel before her, Boulmerka has just won the first gold medal for Algeria.
She looks stern as she pumps her fist in the air.
Later she’d describe this gesture as, “a symbol of defiance. It was to say: ‘I did it! I won! And now, if you kill me, it’ll be too late. I’ve made history!’”
As she runs her victory lap she lovingly hugs her country’s flag to her heart. It is a closed, protective gesture and a sharp contrast to El Moutakawel’s open victory lap.
These two very different, wordless gestures of victory illustrate how volatile the place of Arab women athletes is within a national context.
One athlete had the infrastructural and psychological support of her country and her family while the other didn’t. The Olympics in particular, being a deeply politicized event where nationalism can be most fervent and boundaries can be most pushed, gives an essential public push to those governments and societies who do not offer the support to female athletes that are required to nurture athletic talent.
Despite these pioneering women in sport, the environment is still hostile, perhaps more so than ever before in the current post-revolt turmoil. The women in this exhibition will each have to run bravely to their own battles both external and internal during their sporting careers.
Although Nawal and Hassiba both won Gold, in the end, Aisha didn’t win her race. Some years after the victory at Badr, when Aisha had put on weight from motherhood and lost her ease at flight, Mohamed prodded her to race again. This time as they bolted across the sand he beat her easily. When she brought up the rear, gasping for breath he said, “This is in payment for last time.” Now, as you are introduced to the athletes in this exhibition, try to strip away the politics, the religion and even the gender of these courageous people and I think you will find all that remains is the sacred question of a human’s sovereignty over its own body and beneath that, the flickering flame of unbreakable will.