August 1, 2012

Qatar Flaunts its Commitment to Gender Equality With an Exhibition Dedicated to Sportswomen

London 2012 will be remembered as the very first Olympic Games to which all the participating countries sent women athletes. Brunei, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia didn't have any female competitors at Beijing 2008, but the tide is turning, and even the most traditional monarchies now appear more accomodating.

At the very last minute, Saudi Arabia agreed to send Sarah Attar to run the 800-meter race and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani to compete in Judo (although it is unclear at this stage if she will fight on Friday, her father having publicly stated that she won't take part if she isn't allowed to wear a hijab, a head scarf forbidden by the International Judo Federation). Qatar's team includes three female athletes: swimmer Nada Arkaji, sprinter Noor al-Malki, and shooter Bahya Al Hamad, who was the country's flag bearer at the Olympic Ceremony last week.

Qatar — which will host the football World Cup in 2022 — is particularly keen to show off its commitment to sports and gender equality. And the oil-rich nation is cannily using the international focus on London to publicize its new-found liberalism with an exhibition celebrating Arab athletes. Inaugurated last week at Sotheby's Gallery in Mayfair, and conceived by the Qatar Museums Authority, “Hey’Ya, Arab Women in Sport” is a project by New York-based photographer Brigitte Lacombe and her sister film-maker Marian Lacombe. It gathers 50 portraits of Arab sportswomen as well as a selection of videos — all shot over a seven-month period, which started in December 2011 with the Arab Games in Doha.

“Each of them have different stories,” Lacombe said before the opening of the show. “One Palestinian athlete that I interviewed said they did not have any facilities, or any tracks. She will go to the Olympics. She has never seen a track field. She was training by herself on the beach and in the mountains, and explained how her speed increased when she got a new pair of shoes. They tell you personal stories, of how they managed to convince their parents, or how their family helped them, or how they had to fight to get into sport. And then someone will tell you she just wants to be the best — whether or not she had to fight to get into sport, to start with.”

It's hard to not see “Hey’Ya Arab Women in Sport” as one of the cogs in Qatar's powerful PR machine. The country is distancing itself from some of its hard-line Gulf neighbours, flaunting its openness — though, as the Human Rights Watch World Report 2012 showed, Qatar's women's rights record still has plenty of room for improvement.

To see images from “Hey’Ya Arab Women in Sport,” click on the slide show. To see a video trailer for the show, click below: 

Brigitte Lacombe and Marian Lacombe, “Hey’Ya Arab Women in Sport,” July 25 – August 11, 2012, Sotheby’s Gallery, London.

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