Muslim Women and Sports Don’t Mix? Nonsense.

Sunday’s Washington Post profile on Pakistani American high school tennis player Raheela Fazal left me both excited and disappointed. On the one hand, it’s so great to see South Asians in the mainstream press; on the other hand, the story seems to paint Islam and Muslims with one broad stroke. It opens with this:

Playing tennis makes no sense to most of Raheela Fazal’s Muslim friends. Is it for grades, they ask? No. Does the Potomac senior do it because of a punishment? No.

Raheela’s Muslim peers are baffled by why in the world she would play a sport! Then, the author gives credence to the notion that Raheela’s actions are, indeed, bizarre, by quoting a representative from CAIR:

“Many of the Muslims today are probably second- or third-generation,” said Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Their parents or aunts and uncles still have that mentality that Muslim women didn’t have those opportunities [to play sports], or maybe it was only the norm for the upper class. I think that is changing now.”

To be fair, the writer does also quote Maria Massi-Dakake, “an associate professor of religious studies at George Mason University and an authority on Islamic theology,” who says that “views about Muslim women participating in athletics vary within the culture. Taking part, she said, could be interpreted as a violation of modesty.”

I sort of wish that sentiment had been a bit more prominent in the piece, though I do see how, in this case, Raheela and her Muslim peers did come from a background that thought women and sports didn’t necessarily mix, and the modesty aspect is certainly an issue for many Muslims. But in plenty of Muslim countries and households—whether here in North America or “back home”—it does.

My mother, for example, grew up in a very conservative Muslim household in Pakistan, yet she played just about every sport she could: volleyball, basketball, even shot put (though the image of my mom participating in such an activity is even bizarre to me). She never lets us hear the end of how she was the “champion” in all these events in college. I, on the other hand, can’t walk two feet without tripping over myself, so sports were out for me, though not for lack of encouragement from my family (I can scream about basketball louder than any superfan, though). My younger sister seemed to inherit the athletic prowess in our clan and was quite the soccer star in her youth.

Still, it’s lovely to hear Raheela’s story—here’s wishing her continued success as a tennis star in high school and beyond.

May 8, 2007
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  1. May 9, 2007, 5:16 pm The Great Ganesha

    don’t forget sania mirza. of course, she is also surrounded by her own controversies.

  2. May 9, 2007, 10:11 pm Ricky

    I didn’t liked the fact that Raheela painted such a distorted image of Pakistan. I am from India but have friends from Pakistan and some of them girls who are studying in college and not sitting at home after high-school. It’s not unusual to see an ignorant American on other hand though.