In the News

Muslim Female Athletes Use Voice and Visibility to Break Barriers

While working in Tehran in the early 2000s, Iranian journalist Solmaz Sharif found herself becoming increasingly aware of the lack of coverage of women in sports.

Wanting to give Muslim female athletes a voice, when she moved to New York in 2007 Sharif started an online magazine, Shirzanan (Persian for “female heroes”), which told the stories often neglected by the mainstream media concerning Muslim women in sport.

“Through my hard work in sports newspapers, I realised that many of my male colleagues didn’t believe in women’s sports,” Sharif wrote. “They had little interest in including it in the news. Because the sport desks were dominated by men, women’s athletics received little or no coverage. I had to find a way to empower women and girls through media and sports and decided to launch the first Iranian women’s sports publication.”

Despite earning six million hits, the magazine shut down after two years. But a few years later, Sharif met Mara Gubuan while working at the NGO Advancing Human Rights. The two teamed up to relaunch and expand Shirzanan in 2014 to operate as a media and advocacy organization for Muslim female athletes. Their mission: “to advance Muslim women’s rights through sports and media.” This means promoting sport to Muslim women where access is denied, telling the stories of Muslim female athletes through the platform of their website, educating other media outlets about Muslim female athletes with the hopes that larger publications will also cover them, and advocating for the rights of Muslim women within their chosen sports.

“We were inspired by the inclusion of Muslim female athletes in the 2012 London Olympics for the first time by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei,” Gubuan recalled.

Gubuan and Sharif wanted to build on the momentum Muslim female athletes had cultivated through their own campaigning, particularly around the hijab ban by governing bodies of certain sports, including basketball and boxing. Because of the protests of Muslim female soccer players, FIFA (the international soccer federation) removed its headgear ban in 2012, allowing Muslim women to wear the hijab while playing soccer. 

“We structured our organization to build upon those developments and use sports and media to further advance Muslim women’s rights on and off the playing field,” Gubuan said. To further its mission to make sport more accessible to Muslim women across the globe, Shirzanan is tapping into its wide network of Muslim female athletes who serve as ambassadors for the organization from all over the world. The ambassadors serve as spokespeople for Shirzanan and the issues it advocates through interviews, participating on panels, and even recently taking part in the Women’s March this past January in Washington, D.C.

In 2015, seven Shirzanan ambassadors from around the world joined together to bike across Iowa as part of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, as a way to promote female sports participation as a fundamental right. The athletes included an Afghan soccer player (Hajar Abulfazil), a Pakistani swimmer (Kiran Kahn), and an Iranian snowboarder (Mona Seraji).

Abulfazil, the former captain of Afghanistan’s women’s national soccer team, took part in the bike ride, saying at the time, “When Mara told me about this program, I was so happy. And I said to myself, it’s one way I can change something for women and the rights of women in Afghanistan. If I can change one mind about sport and women, I think I did my job.”

Shirzanan also hosts training workshops for female journalists to learn how to cover sports. The most recent workshop was led and taught by Saad Hattar, formerly a reporter with the BBC and AFP, and produced by Jo Weir, former director of journalism and media training for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Twelve Jordanian, Iraqi, and Syrian journalists took part in the workshop, and a selection of stories from the workshop were published in Arabic with English translations.

Mona Hamdy, co-founder and managing director of the anti-poverty NGO Al Baydha Development Corporation, based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, recently joined Shirzanan’s board. Hamdy immediately supported the purpose and vision behind Shirzanan’s mission, stating, “By ensuring that Muslim women have the equal access to opportunity afforded them under the charters and laws that govern their sport, Shirzanan gives them a platform and a support network to advocate for the rights and opportunities they are perhaps being denied or that they might not otherwise know they are entitled to.”

Fatima Saleem, a sports anchor for Geo News in Pakistan, serves on the advisory board She is proud of Shirzanan’s efforts to engage and educate. “Shirzanan has provided a platform to athlete ambassadors to reach out to their fans and followers. They share their inspiring stories through Shirzanan, which has connected them to the world,” Saleem said.

These relationships extend beyond media, and to larger organizations like the United Nations. “In the past one and a half years, we have raised the voices of [female Muslim athletes] by connecting them with [leaders at] organizations like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the International Olympic Committee. In other words, we’re securing seats at the table for representatives of affected groups of adverse human rights impacts,” Gubuan said.

By having the opportunity to advocate to people in these large organizations, Shirzanan is ensuring that the concerns of Muslim female athletes, including access to sport and ending hijab bans, become part of the discussion involving international women’s empowerment.

Board advisor Minky Worden, a human rights activist and director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, knew she wanted to get involved with Shirzanan when she saw what the organization was accomplishing. “If Shirzanan ceased to do its vital work supporting Muslim women athletes, I cannot see any group that could step into the void it would leave,” she said. “I got involved with Shirzanan because Human Rights Watch had written reports on the denial of sport for women and girls in Saudi Arabia—and Shirzanan had built its own powerful separate network of Muslim women athletes working for the same goals of sport advancing basic rights.”

As their fight for better coverage of Muslim female athletes continues, the women of Shirzanan hope that stereotypes of what being a Muslim woman looks like will begin to fade, as the understanding that Muslim women deserve equal access to sport gains traction. According to Hamdy, “Ultimately, these women don’t care what we think of them or what our opinions are about their religion or their religious tokens of expression like the veil … they are athletes who just want to play.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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