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Women’s Sporting Rights: The battle is in Philadelphia… and Riyadh

By James M. Dorsey

A pre-teen female player has attracted widespread attention with her fight to overturn a clerical ban on her right to play football alongside boys in a co-ed league. Backed by her parents, the player initially succeeded with an online and media campaign to force the clergy to lift the ban temporarily. However, the clergy has since rescinded its decision and definitively reinstituted the ban. Not taking no for an answer, the player earlier this month launched a renewed public campaign to force the clergy’s hand.

The player’s name is Caroline Pla. She is an Anglo-Saxon Catholic. She’s fighting her battle for equal women’s sporting rights with Catholic bishops in Philadelphia, not with Muslim imams somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa. Her battle is taking place today rather than decades ago and as such serves as evidence that resistance by Muslim clergy to women’s rights, including the right to play with or in proximity to men, is hardly unique. Ms. Pla’s case is not an isolated incident. The Diocese in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, adheres to the same policy. It recently ordered male Catholic youth wrestlers not to engage with their female counterparts.

Ms. Pla’s story also highlights the fact that whether Muslim or Christian, rejection of women's’ unrestricted right to engage in sports whether as players in Philadelphia or Saudi Arabia or as spectators in Saudi Arabia and Iran where women are banned from attending competitions in stadia has little to do with religion and everything to do with culturally conservative attitudes towards women in different parts of the world cloaked in religious arguments.

Ms. Pla’s story is in many ways the same as that of Christian and Muslim players in the Palestinian women’s national soccer team who tell very similar tales about the societal obstacles they had to overcome. It is also fundamentally similar to that of women in most other Middle Eastern and North African societies. It is a story of women of whatever age and cultural or religious background who are frequently supported by at least one family member in their resolve to stand up to society as a whole or their sub-community for their rights.

The similarities between Ms. Pla’s story and that of women in the Middle East and North Africa takes on added significance in the wake of the Islamist violence that recently rocked Paris and that has sparked debate about whether and to what degree conservative Muslim norms differ from conservative Western values.

To be sure, Ms. Pla has a leg up on her Middle Eastern and North African counterparts. She is waging her battle in a society that encourages women’s sports, values freedom of expression and upholds the right to stand up to religious or temporal authority. Ms. Pla is also waging her campaign in a country that allows women to drive and does not refer cases of violators to courts that deal with terrorism as happened recently in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a country that also puts itself in a separate category by not including physical education in the curriculum of public girl’s schools and forcing women’s soccer teams to exist in a nether land

Ms. Pla started playing co-ed American football when she was still in kindergarten. Five years later, Ms. Pla and a group of friends joined a team that plays in a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) league outside of Philadelphia. Mid-way her second season, the archdiocese of Philadelphia advised her parents that Ms. Pla could not play because football was considered a boys sport in the league handbook. In response, Ms. Pla launched an online petition that was picked up by the media and forced the archdiocese to back off. It did so with a caveat: the archdiocese retained the right to reverse its decision whenever it wished to do so.

Last summer, the clerical body announced in a statement quoted by Yahoo Sports that “preparation for Christian adulthood…involves the development and encouragement of appropriate, dignified and respectful forms of contact between male and female students. The Diocese therefore believes that it is incompatible with its religious mission and with its effort to teach Gospel values to condone competitions between young men and women in sports that involve substantial and potentially immodest physical contact. Consequently, Diocese has adopted this policy prohibiting co-ed participation in the following sports: wrestling, tackle football, and tackle rugby.”

Take out the words Christian and Diocese, and the statement could have been issued by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, which last year advised the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it would allow women in a rare concession to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics but only in traditional Islamic sports endorsed by a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee said the kingdom was training women to compete in equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery Olympic contests which are "accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia".

In another incident, authorities in the Saudi province of Mecca removed public television screens during last year’s World Cup in Brazil to prevent men and women from mixing in violation of the kingdom’s strict gender segregation rules.

The move sparked protests on social media. “Those who removed the screens showing the World Cup in the gardens didn't do it because of mixing but because they love to kill peoples’ pleasure,” thundered an angry soccer fan on Twitter. “If a person is sitting with his family, and he is in charge, what kind of mixing are they talking about?” asked another.

The dividing lines in Saudi Arabia were further evident in response to a YouTube video viewed by nearly half a million people. The video showed a rare female Saudi soccer fan clad in traditional all enveloping dress cheering her club, Al Hilal, against the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain in an Asian Champions League match.

Commenters on the video lined up on both sides of the argument with 1,826 dislikes and 969 likes. A proponent of the ban on women attending sporting events in stadia asserted that “we do not allow women to have 100% freedom… Most Muslim women agree with I don't understand how most of the world’s women wear tight clothes and walk half naked on the streets and beaches as if it were normal ..! Don’t these women have brothers or fathers???”

Saudi women may be fighting their region’s toughest battle for women’s rights but women across the Middle East and North Africa are nonetheless making headway. To be sure, they fight their battles in an environment that is less welcoming and less conducive than that in which Ms. Pla operates. Ms. Pla’s struggle is however no less significant, if only because it shows that restrictive conservative attitudes towards women are universal rather than culture or religion-specific.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

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