'Muslim sportswomen need not cover up'
11 July 2007
PUTRAJAYA - Malaysia’s sports minister, a Muslim woman with a martial-arts black-belt, likes to lead by example: she does not wear a headscarf and insists that Muslim sportswomen do not have to cover up either.
Azalina Othman Said, 43, believes women offer the best chance of glory for a modern Muslim nation hungry for sporting success — but in trying to encourage more girls to take up sports, she is quietly holding the line against conservative Islam.
Wearing a tracksuit-top and pants, Azalina told Reuters in an interview in her office on Tuesday that Muslim sportswomen were free here to dress just like their non-Muslim rivals, whether in the pool, on the diving board or in the gymnastics arena.
“It’s never become an issue in Malaysia,” she said, declaring that women of all ages should, and do, feel free in this country to “wear shorts and jump around”.
“I mean we have Muslim gymnasts wearing tights and it’s never crossed anyone’s mind about how athletes are dressed. I am quite thankful that the people of Malaysia are still open-minded.”
But in reality not all Malaysians are so open minded.
In February, the Islamist government of the northeast state of Kelantan barred men from watching or officiating at a women’s national sports competition — and even in the absence of men, many athletes chose to compete wearing headscarves.
Malaysia prides itself on being a moderate Muslim country and its national government presents itself as a bulwark against Islamic extremists, but Malaysian society is widely seen to be bending to the global forces of conservative Islam.
In a country where 20 years ago women tended not to wear headscarves, religious police now prowl nightclubs and have detained women for immodest dress. This month, they hauled a singer away from a club for exposing too much of her back.
Religious authorities have so far stayed outside the sporting arena, and Azalina remains confident that it will stay that way.
But she warns that this cannot be guaranteed if there is a change to Malaysia’s formula of multi-racial coalition government, where the Muslim majority share power with non-Muslim parties representing ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians.
“The day they change the government, I doubt it,” she said, shaking her head.
Malaysia’s quest for glory
Muslims make up about 60 percent of the population, but Muslim women are a minority among the nation’s top athletes, finishing well behind Malaysia’s minority-ethnic Chinese athletes in the traditional Olympic sports.
At the Asian Games in Doha last year, women won five of Malaysia’s eight gold medals but only one of these was claimed by a Muslim, in the team event for 10-pin bowling.
Azalina, who is a member of Sisters in Islam, a group that lobbies for Muslim women’s rights, does not believe religious conservatism is behind the shortfall of Muslim women in sport.
Instead, she said, poverty among Muslims, and social apathy about sport in general, were largely to blame. Almost all Muslims in Malaysia are ethnic Malays, many of whom live scattered in poor, rural villages with few or no sporting facilities.
“Poverty is an issue,” Azalina said. “I believe there’s no issue of gender. It’s not an issue of religion.”
Malaysia has never won an Olympic gold medal and has not made the podium at an Olympic Games since Atlanta in 1996. After the Athens games in 2004, the government sprang into action and formed a cabinet committee to revive its elite sports.
The government pumped extra money into football, hockey, badminton, squash, ten-pin bowling, gymnastics, aquatics and athletics. It is also developing an elite sports centre in Britain, putting its athletes closer to top coaches and competitions.
But Azalina says the real challenge will be to get all Malaysians, not just Muslims, out of their living rooms and onto the playing fields, where she spent a lot of her own youth—a task she says could take 10 to 20 years to achieve.
“It’s not just about winning medals,” she said.
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