ATHENS, Greece – Robina Muqimyar began her track and field training for the 2004 Olympics running on the cracked concrete of the stadium where Afghanistan’s Taliban regime had executed scores of people, sometimes hanging their bodies on soccer goal posts.
It was the first time she had run outdoors. And it was just a year ago.
As an Afghan woman, Muqimyar wasn’t allowed to emerge from her home under the rule of the Taliban, which was ousted by a U.S. invasion in 2001. Today, she is one of a growing number of Muslim women participating in a wide range of sports at the highest level — an arena long denied them by poverty and religious or cultural oppression.
A record number of Muslim women are representing their countries this year in Athens, nearly every one of them overcoming unimaginable hardships. Some endure death threats for exposing their legs to foreign men; others prepare for this day without the mats, shoes or other equipment that would be standard in any U.S. or European elementary school, much less the gymnasiums that produce world-class competitors.
And many of the women struggle to find ways to balance their desire to obey Islam’s requirements for modesty with the ability to maintain a competitive edge. In contrast to perceptions in the West, many say, their societies wholeheartedly encourage their participation in sports.
Muqimyar, 17, and teammate Friba Razayee, 18, are making history in Athens. When Razayee steps onto the judo mat Wednesday, she will become the first woman to compete on behalf of Afghanistan. Muqimyar follows suit Friday in the 100-meter race.
“It is an enormous honor to represent Afghani women in the Olympics for the first time,” Razayee said. “I don’t care if I don’t get any medals. Medals aren’t important. Just attending the Olympics is a gold medal for me.”
Both women said they were able to reconcile being good Muslims with their activities, even though radical imams at home have condemned them. Muqimyar, for example, competes in long pants, in contrast to the short, tight briefs worn by many sprinters.
Egypt, an Islamic but secular country, boasts 15 women in its 96-member delegation. For the first time, an Egyptian woman has qualified for Olympic rowing.
Doaa Alazab practiced on the Nile — and she rows wearing long pants, long sleeves and a hijab, as the head scarf is known. “I think I can be a model for religious girls in sports, inshallah,” she said, ending with the refrain heard frequently in the Muslim world: “God willing.”
Activists and other athletes say that although women’s participation has grown, the struggle continues. Countries such as Saudi Arabia continue to exclude women from their Olympics delegation, in practice if not in policy.
And many may remember the ordeal of Hassiba Boulmerka, an Algerian runner who captured her country’s first gold in 1992, in the 1,500-meter race, only to be condemned at home for “running with naked legs” before thousands of men. She was forced into exile in Italy.
“There are a good number of women participating,” said Annie Sugier, co-founder of the group Atlanta-Sydney-Athens Plus, which lobbies on behalf of female athletes in the Olympics. “The main problem is the delegations that exclude women, institutional segregation and more subtle kinds of discrimination.”
Sugier’s group calculated that about 35 countries didn’t have women in their Olympic delegations in the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain; this year, about four or five don’t. Many, however, restrict the women to certain sports, such as shooting (where several Iranian women have competed in recent years, in full head-to-toe chador). About 40 percent of the estimated 10,500 athletes competing in Athens are women.
The International Olympic Committee does not track the religions of athletes, so it is impossible to give the exact number of Muslim women in this year’s Games. Journalists have put the number at about 50, more than in any previous Olympiad.
To Sugier’s dismay, the IOC has not confronted countries such as Saudi Arabia. Spokeswoman Giselle Davis said the IOC encourages women everywhere to get involved in sports.
In much of the Islamic world, fundamentalism is on the rise, with the potential to thwart the success of women in athletics. The Quran, the sacred book of Islam, counsels physical fitness for men and women alike; the prophet Muhammad is said to have challenged his wife Aisha to a foot race and lost. (He reportedly won the rematch.)
But in conservative circles, the mixing of the sexes, the skimpy clothing and the physical contact and exhibitionism of championship sports are frowned upon, if not outright prohibited.
Alazab, the Egyptian rower, said she had found a compromise. She eschewed “violent” specialties involving physical contact yet opted for an endeavor that required enormous physical strength. She doesn’t believe that her clothing hurts her competitive edge.
The 22-year-old said she had come under considerable pressure from Egyptian Olympic officials to shed the hijab. (Egypt is keen to show itself as a secular, modern state.) She refused.
“I’d rather be out of the Olympics than dress modern,” said the slender physical education major.
Pakistan has for the first time sent a female swimmer to the Olympics: 13-year-old Rubab Raza. The long bodysuit that is the current uniform of most Olympic swimmers gives her some degree of modesty. Even that has been controversial, however.
Rubab’s trainer would not allow her to interrupt training for an interview before her 50-meter freestyle event Saturday. But she and her family have told reporters that she has faced ridicule and scorn, along with admiration. Her mother suggested that part of the reason Rubab can swim in public is her age; once she passes puberty, it will become more difficult.
Rubab is one of two females in the 43-member Pakistani delegation. The other is a runner.
For the lone woman in the small Palestinian delegation, poverty more than prejudice threw obstacles in her path to the Olympics. To train, Sanna Abubkheet, 19, has been running on the seashore of the Gaza Strip, near her home in Deir al Balah, sometimes wearing beat-up shoes but most often going barefoot.
“The sand is good for building muscles,” she said. “We have no playgrounds, no track, no playing fields.”
Abubkheet carried the Palestinian flag in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, flashing the victory sign as she strode in to loud applause. Delegation officials said she was chosen to bear the flag because of her gender.
In Afghanistan under the Taliban, Muqimyar said, she didn’t know what sports were, much less the Olympics.
Afghanistan was suspended from the Olympic movement in 1999 because of the Taliban’s policy of forbidding women to work and go to school. These Games mark the nation’s return.
The Taliban is officially gone, but fundamentalists still menace much of the country. Muqimyar and Razayee said they must train inside a gym with hard concrete floors, or inside the stadium that served as the Taliban execution chamber.
“I want all Afghan women to know they can come out now,” Muqimyar said. “I’m one that is opening their way to the world of sports and to the world.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Laura King, recently on assignment in Baghdad, and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.