Breaking the Olympic gender barrier in Muslim Qatar

If it weren't for the high-tech sport rifle cradled in her arms, Bahya al-Hamad would look like your average Qatari girl, with her large, shy eyes and black hijab, Nahlah Ayed writes. But that rifle has catapulted her onto the world stage and Olympic history.

Qatari sharpshooter will also be the country's flag bearer

If it weren't for the high-tech sport rifle cradled in her arms, Bahya al-Hamad would look like your average Qatari girl, with her extraordinarily large, dark and shy eyes, an olive complexion, a slight build, her head covered in black hijab.

But that rifle has set her far apart, catapulting her on to the world stage and into Olympic history.

Twenty-year-old al-Hamad will be one of the first four women ever to represent Qatar at the Olympic Games, the latest version of which begins later this week in London. She will compete in the air rifle competition.

Her journey to the Games began as a child when her father would occasionally take her out hunting with him and let her have a few shots.   He noticed early that she was a natural, and encouraged her to hone her skills further.

"I liked the focus, the clothes, to have a rifle for me to practice with, designed for my body," al-Hamad told CBC News.

As a teen she joined a club that accepted female members, and soon she was competing nationally and internationally, bringing home gold medals and inspiring a new generation of Qatari women to embrace sport.

But nothing could have prepared her for the intense interest and scrutiny that comes with being an Olympian.

No more holdouts

For the first time in the history of the Games, every member nation of the International Olympic Committee will be sending at least one woman to participate this year.

Sprinter Noor al-Malki, who will compete in the 100-metre dash is one of four female athletes from Qatar breaking the gender barrier at the London Olympics. (Mohamad Dabbouss / Reuters)

Until now, the last holdouts had been Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia, all Muslim nations with limited sporting opportunities for women.

Islam doesn't prohibit female sports, but in some conservative Muslim countries cultural concerns have left them out of organized activity, the Olympics, and so much more.

Qatar, which has applied to host the 2020 Olympic Games (it will host soccer's World Cup in 2022), is now sending four women to London: a swimmer, a table tennis player, a runner, and al-Hamad.

Women's participation in sport has expanded exponentially in Qatar in recent years — there is now a women's sports federation and organized leagues in a number of sports.

But the decision to allow women to participate at this level and to choose al-Hamad as the country's flag bearer is quite extraordinary and possibly, a turning point for Qatar and its women.

I met al-Hamad recently at a Swiss practice facility just outside Zurich, where she was training for up to five hours a day. The climate there was far more like England's than her tiny home country on the Persian Gulf, where summer temperatures can soar well into the 40s.

She moves carefully and deliberately, a model of composure. She closes her huge eyes, then opens them slowly. After that she doesn't blink again until she lets the shot go.

More often than not, she hits the bull's eye. She doesn't flinch.

"I never imagined I would be the first female athlete [from Qatar] to enter the Olympics," she said, just as composed as when she is shooting.

"People are expecting us to achieve something at the Olympics. I hope we don't disappoint them."

A hand up

Al-Hamad was crushed when earlier this year she missed qualifying for the Olympics by half a point at an Asian championship.

Qatari swimmer Nada Arkaj will also be representing the Gulf state at the London Games. (Mohamad Dabbouss / Reuters)

A month later, she received a phone call, telling her she would be going to the Olympics anyway on a wild card — those Olympic slots awarded to member countries and which can be filled by those who had not qualified through other events.

She was thrilled. But her father wouldn't believe it until it was reported in the papers.

Critics claim this kind of wild-card invitation is damaging to the sport, and to the credibility of the Olympics.

But others maintain that women like al-Hamad deserve a helping hand, not only to advance their own sporting careers but to set an example to women in their home countries.

As for al-Hamad, because of her performance, she believes she deserves to be there.

"This is a dream, it was my dream to be in the Olympics," she says. "My ambition is like any athlete, and that is to take a medal. But if I don't, then it's enough that I participated in this contest and had the chance to meet other Olympic athletes."

The Saudis

Saudi Arabia, the last holdout this year, decided to send two women to the Olympics but only after intense negotiation, and only after critics demanded the IOC ban the Saudis for violating the Olympic charter.

The charter says that the practice of sport is a human right and should be freely available to anyone, without discrimination.

There was much celebration two weeks ago when the news broke, but the announcement has still not satisfied everyone.

Saudi women cannot appear in public uncovered or travel without a male guardian, and its Olympic officials maintain that its female athletes must adhere to those rules at the Games too.

Saudi women athletes must dress according to Sharia law, must travel with their male guardian and must refrain from mixing with unrelated men.

An added complication in this case is that one of the women representing Saudi Arabia is actually an American runner who has a Saudi father, and whose best time is 25 seconds slower than the slowest runner at the Beijing Olympics.

Either that speaks to the lack of options on the part of the Saudis — who have tended to discourage women's sports — or simply to an act of lip service.

"Allowing these two Saudi women to compete in the Olympics is just a gesture to appease the international community," says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian.

"It's not like they're suddenly going to open up gyms, women's football teams, (or) soccer clubs in Saudi Arabia."

'Watch and see'

As recently as Sunday, human rights activists were still protesting against what they see as the Saudi's half-measures, when it comes to women and sports.

But the IOC says this year's inclusion of women from all countries is a reason to celebrate. And for Bahya al-Hamad it certainly is.

The young shooter from Qatar says nothing should prevent women from participating in sport — as long as they remain modest. But she isn't keen to discuss what other countries are doing.

She dismissed any suggestion she will be shunned at all when she returns from the Olympics, saying she has always been encouraged to compete.

It may not be as easy for other female athletes, however. Wearing a swimsuit in public is a huge departure for women in strict Muslim countries, and the prospect of women competitors in bathing suits has already drawn criticism in some places.

How these Muslim women perform in the Games may well determine how they're received afterwards.

Should al-Hamad manage to actually win a medal, she will almost certainly become a hero to thousands of women who may not have otherwise thought about aiming for the Olympics.

Her manager, Nawal al-Sulaiti, says she's already become a role model to young women in Qatar and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Al-Hamad says Qatar and its women have been underestimated. "Watch Qatar, and see what we will accomplish," she says with a wide smile.

An average Qatari girl, perhaps, but one whose name will go down in history.