SHOULD WE allow women to play sports? Is it necessary for women to play sports? In the civilized world, anyone who uses the words “allow” and “necessary” in the context of women in sport – or any other field of human endeavor – would be considered an idiot who is not suitable to be taken seriously.
But not so long ago, such backward attitudes were common even in the Western world. Due to their perceived fragility, for a long time women were not allowed to compete in supposedly difficult sports – women entered Olympic boxing only nine years ago and ran the Olympic marathon for the first time only 37 years ago. In 1896, when women were completely excluded from the first Olympic Games in Athens, a Greek woman, Stamata Revithi, was determined to run – a day after the men’s marathon, for which she was not eligible, she ran the marathon all alone. The reward for her efforts was that she was not allowed to enter the Panathinaiko Stadium, a former sports venue refurbished for the Olympics.
It took 88 more years for women to be allowed to run the marathon at the Olympics. In between, European nations gave freedom to their colonies, the human rights movement gained ground, America’s civil liberties law was passed, and women began to be seen as self-sufficient beings. . Gradually, throughout the world, they obtained the right to vote, Switzerland only granting them this right at the federal level in 1971, seven years after Afghanistan!
But women couldn’t run the marathon. At the 1967 Boston Marathon, a woman called Kathrine Switzer signed up as KW Switzer and finished the race, despite an official attempting to physically eject her as she ran – luckily the little one Kathrine’s friend managed to fend off the official.
The New York Marathon hosted the women in the inaugural race in 1970. The European Championships included the women’s marathon in its program for the first time in 1982, and two years later the Olympics did the same, in Los Angeles 1984. Women cyclists also made their Olympic Games debut that year. Before that, in Helsinki 1952, women were allowed to participate in equestrian competitions for the first time at the Olympics; they were first allowed to participate in shooting in Mexico City in 1968, and in 1976 in Montreal, women’s basketball and handball made their debut. Inch by inch, sport by sport, women were “allowed” to compete by committees made up mostly of men.
This year’s Tokyo Olympics was the first gender-equality Olympics in history, with nearly 49% of the contestants being women. The percentage was 45.6 in Rio de Janeiro 2016 and 44.2 in London 2012. Major sporting nations such as China, the United States, Australia, Great Britain and Canada had more women. than men in their contingents.
The same year as the Tokyo Olympics, as well, a country deciding to ban women’s sport altogether seems nothing short of madness. Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan is that country – the same country whose women in 1964 were involved in drafting a new constitution that gave them the right to vote and run for office. Their right to vote – and to run and laugh, sing, dance and go out with their faces uncovered – was taken away when the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. The relief lasted barely two decades. Women who loved to play cricket or football must now retreat to the confines of their home and move only with a male guardian.
A Taliban official recently said: “I don’t think women will be allowed to play cricket because women don’t need to play cricket. “
Imagine a woman from Australia – possibly the world’s sportiest nation – not being allowed to play sports because it was not necessary; forced to withdraw from sport and society. It is therefore not surprising that Cricket Australia (CA) is the first sporting entity to express its outrage at the Taliban’s proposal to ban cricket to women.
Men, using scriptures, religion and tradition, try to restrict the autonomy and freedom of women. They cite a divine sanction to suppress women – Shahid Afridi, for example, said he would not allow his daughters to play cricket or other outdoor sports for “social and religious reasons”.
Eventually secular ideas, free from dogma, will defeat primitive notions of gender inequality in sport. Until then, unfortunately, far too many women would have endured far too much suffering.