Sunday, October 17, 2004

Bangladesh: Women's Soccer - "Bend it like Begum"

I really do not understand how women sports can be said to destroy moral character. Even if it is, whose moral character are they talking about – of the women or the men? As far as the women are concerned, physical exercise and sport are beneficial to their physical healthiness. Men and women alike are in need of sport and exercise to maintain their physical fitness. Benefits derived from sport are keys to universal notions of good health, confidence, success and overall happiness. It is, therefore, a well acknowledged fact all over the world that sports not only have social and physical benefits but also essential psychological consequences. Physical exercise and fitness help to maintain a more balanced emotional state, as it ‘aids in the release of harmful free radicals and excess hormones’.



Women’s football dribbling with fanatic fantasia


The Bangladeshi girls can now ‘bend it like Beckham’. Or I must say that they have dared to do so. The first ever women’s football tournament of Bangladesh began on October 4 this year. Thanks to Bangladesh Football Federation and more thanks to the women players and their supportive families to take the country a step ahead. Women in Bangladesh were already into sports like volleyball, handball, swimming, shooting, judo and karate. The recent addition of football to the women’s sports in Bangladesh is undoubtedly a brave step towards globalization. I feel proud to be a Bangladeshi woman. Sincere cheers for you soccer-girls out there for making a mark by creating a history for me and for all of us!

However, it is unfortunate to notice that certain fanatic Islamic groups in Bangladesh have become critical over the country’s first-ever women’s football tournament. They have decided to carry on a three-day agitation program in Dhaka to stop the tournament. These groups have further vowed to announce tougher programs against the government if the competition is not stopped immediately. According to media reports of last few days, the Amir of Islamic Constitution Movement (ICM) and Charmonai Pir Fazlul Karim threatened to besiege the National Sports Council on October 9 if the government had not stopped the ongoing women’s football tournament. The Islamic group, Jamiatul Ulama Islami Bangladesh has further declared that there members were even ready to sacrifice their lives to stop the event from going ahead.

It may be mentioned here that only a few months back, Bangladesh’s first women’s wrestling competition received the similar kind of threats from Muslim fanatics who termed the event “vulgar and indecent”. However, this time the demand of fanatic Islamic groups is not only limited to stopping the football tournament as such. They further demanded “a ban on all kinds of women sports” in Bangladesh. The reasons forwarded by these fanatic Islamic groups so far are two-folds :

women sports destroy moral character; and women sports are anti-Islamic.

I really do not understand how women sports can be said to destroy moral character. Even if it is, whose moral character are they talking about – of the women or the men? As far as the women are concerned, physical exercise and sport are beneficial to their physical healthiness. Men and women alike are in need of sport and exercise to maintain their physical fitness. Benefits derived from sport are keys to universal notions of good health, confidence, success and overall happiness. It is, therefore, a well acknowledged fact all over the world that sports not only have social and physical benefits but also essential psychological consequences. Physical exercise and fitness help to maintain a more balanced emotional state, as it ‘aids in the release of harmful free radicals and excess hormones’.

Women have multi-dimensional roles to play in family and the society. Therefore, women should be physically and emotionally fit to provide significant inputs to the society, as well as to her relationship with husband, family and friends. Therefore, the claim of fanatic Islamic groups that women sports destroy moral character of women is completely illogical. If, however, these Islamic groups meant that women sports would destroy the moral character of some men in the society then it is those men who need psychiatric treatment to restore the required standard of morality. Ban on women’s sport would not help them much as they can still fantasize women’s sports in their mind and can suffer from ‘continuous degradation of morality’ syndrome.

The other reason for demanding a ban on women sports by the fanatic Islamic groups in Bangladesh is that women sports are anti-Islamic. It is stated that Islam in general has always encouraged sports as a way of refreshing one’s mind, be it of a man or women. The Prophet Muhammad always advised his disciples (both men and women) to engage in different forms of sport. According to history, the Prophet himself would engage in sports like wrestling, racing, archery and horse races. Islam did not, therefore, discriminate women on grounds of sports as such. Moreover, the following hadith would illustrate how women are treated equally with men in Islamic precinct regarding physical capabilities :

"While Aisha (r.a.a) was on a journey along with the Apostle of Allah (s.a.w), she had a race with him and outpaced him. As time passed, the Prophet (s.a.w) wished to avenge for his loss, so he raced her again, in which case he outpaced her, and remarked: “This is for that outpacing.”

Therefore, the claim made by fanatic Islamic groups in Bangladesh as to women sports being un-Islamic is completely baseless. Their demand for banning the ongoing football tournament and as such, the women’s sports, does not merit any consideration, what so ever. On the contrary, it is strongly stated that their very demand for banning women’s sports in Bangladesh is itself un-Islamic.

As a matter of fact women’s sports are encouraged in other parts of the Muslim world too. Very specifically, football is played by Muslim women in many other countries of the world. Muslim women in Indonesia, Malaysia, Qatar and Oman have been playing football against all odds. On September 18, 2004 women’s football also made its debut in Pakistan when a match was played by its women’s football team in Islamabad to promote the spirit of fair play in competitions. Football has been played by women in Iran for several decades and according to Khadijeh Sepanchi, the head of the Iranian Women’s Football Association, about 4,700 Muslim women currently play football in Iran. Women football tournaments are also a regular feature of Kuwait University. Moreover, many non-Muslim countries of the world currently have their own all-Muslim women football teams participating in national and international events. Ansar United of the United States of America has its own all-Muslim women football team. The United Kingdom also sent its own all-Muslim girls’ football team to the 3rd Muslim Women’s Games of 2001.

The question of banning women sports in Bangladesh on Islamic grounds does also give rise to various issues of discrimination and Constitutional rights of women. Let’s assume, to meet the demand of fanatic Islamic groups, such a ban is imposed by the government on Muslim women in Bangladesh. It will create a discrimination against Muslim women vis-à-vis non-Muslim women of Bangladesh as the later would be outside the scope of such ban. The government will thus be in violation of Article 28 (1) of the Constitution by which the citizens of Bangladesh have a right not to be discriminated on grounds of religion. If however, the ban is extended to non-Muslim women, they would be forced to refrain from doing something which otherwise their religion might permit. Therefore, the state would be in violation of Article 41 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion to every citizen of Bangladesh.

Moreover, if a ban is imposed on women sports (say, playing football) in Bangladesh while men remain free to participate in such activities, it would create a discrimination against women vis-à-vis men. According to Article 28(2) women in Bangladesh are guaranteed equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life. Also, it is one of the fundamental principles of our state policy that the government should ensure women participation in all spheres of national life (Article 10 of the Constitution). Besides, the government has its international commitment under the Women Convention (CEDAW) to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women from the society. Therefore, the government should encourage and provide women of Bangladesh with equal opportunity and patronization in sports.

In conclusion, I see no valid ground for fanatic Islamic group’s agitation against the ongoing women’s football tournament in Bangladesh. Rather, the very demand raised by fanatic Islamic groups for banning women’s sports in Bangladesh is illogical, un-Islamic and above all, un-constitutional.

The writer is a barrister and currently doing her Ph.D. in Law at Monash University, Australia

New Age 17/10/2004