Monday, May 19, 2008

Saudi women and sports: The discourse

The AP ran a story a couple of weeks ago about a women's basketball team in Saudi Arabia. The article highlighted the "freedom" from restrictions placed on most Saudi Muslim women that basketball engenders.

Why is freedom in quotation marks above? Because when we talk about Asian and Middle Eastern Muslim women, especially in the context of sport, we have a tendency to impose Western norms. And, of course, we get into some problematic areas. Because of course many of the regulations placed on Saudi women's movement and dress are sexist and limiting--perhaps even debilitating.

But there are a few problems. First, Western society and Western-based religions have plenty of sexist practices and regulations too. Can we really hierarchize them? Well I suppose we do. But we shouldn't. They all wreak of patriarchal stink.

So such discourse as was put forth in the article (mostly in the titles that individual papers chose to place on the story) created a vision of sport as somehow inherently freeing for Saudi women. Consider this one: Underground sport: Saudi women shed veils to play basketball. The whole thing has an Orientalist tinge to it. Underground and secret and covert and women and shedding of clothes to reveal parts that rarely see the light of day. The whole shedding of the veils thing also suggests that Muslim women who do veil can never play sports with veils which is completely false. Additionally it suggests that through basketball (without veils) Saudi women are free from the "constraints" of their religion and society. Again the quotation marks because we don't know what these women choose to do (choice of course also being problematic and limited by one's situation) and what they might be forced to do. It also assumes that sports themselves are free from tyranny and sexism.

The other version of the article I found contains a similarly problematic headline: Under cloak of secrecy Saudi women compete. Not much else I can add. Same themes, different wording.

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