Emirati women athletes challenge comments questioning if girls should play rugby

Athletes cite role models like Fatima Al Ali and Major Mariam Al Mansouri who pursued careers not typically considered traditional for Emirati women

Emirati athletes have challenged comments made in a parliamentary debate that suggested girls should be taught cooking instead of sports such as rugby.

Emiratis opposed the suggestion by Federal National Council member Salem Al Shehhi, who represents Ras Al Khaimah, that cooking classes were important to "be perfect housewives" and that rugby was too tough a sport for girls.

Shahad Budebs, an Emirati athlete, who grew up playing football, said she has been hearing comments like these her whole life.

“I struggled with this kind of talk; people saying football is a boyish game, and girls shouldn’t play such games,” she said.

But the objections only made the 24-year-old student more determined to pursue sports.

Her most recent achievement was coming second place in the Cross Fit championship, Battle of The East, in Kuwait this month.

“I don’t see a difference between boys and girls in sports,” said Ms Budebs.

“On the contrary I think women should challenge men in ‘their sports’, just as they are challenging them in the corporate world.”

Ms Budebs is one of three women who represented the UAE — along with three other men — at Lake Tahoe Spartan Beast Race, a 20 kilometre obstacle course race held in the US, at the end of September.

“We all finished the race and we were just happy to be there as Emirati women representing the UAE in what is considered the toughest Spartan race around the world.”


Read more:

Rugby too 'rough' and girls should instead study cooking, says UAE council member

Ten Emirati women athletes who chose sport over cooking 

'Sport or no sport - let girls choose': UAE residents react strongly to FNC member's anti-rugby comments


She said she did not consider rugby to be particularly tough for women.

“Women have taken on tougher games like weightlifting and gymnastics,” Ms Budebs said.

“Sports in general result in injuries and it wouldn’t make a difference whether a woman is playing karate, Ju-jitsu or rugby — it’s all the same.”

Emirati trekker Heyam Al Blooshi, 30, argued that if the concern was one of safety, women are just as likely to hurt themselves in the kitchen.

“Just as a woman could hurt herself in sports, she could burn her fingers while cooking,” she said.

“I agree with the FNC member that there are some skills a girl needs to learn, but this should not put limits on girls practicing non-traditional sports — like rugby.”

She said that when women succeed when following extraordinary paths or defying social stereotypes, they are a source of pride for their families and country.

"I would like to ask the member 'Weren't you proud of the pilot Major Mariam Al Mansouri who lead the attacks against ISIS in 2014?'," she said, referring to the first Emirati woman fighter jet pilot.

“If she had followed his words and stuck to her traditional role as a woman and stayed at home cooking and sewing, would she have made that moment in history?

“He should be proud that one of Zayed’s daughters has done this.”

Ms Al Blooshi said ice-hockey player Fatima Al Ali was another example of an exceptional Emirati woman pursuing sports.

“She is an example of the Emirati woman we are all proud of.”

She said taking part in team sports teaches people transferable skills, such as decision making and leadership skills, that could inevitably be of use in a household.

“A woman wouldn’t only learn those skills from cooking and sewing.”

Ms Al Blooshi is not afraid to break a glass ceiling herself: her first job was a site engineer in the desert of Ruwais, some 200 kilometres from Abu Dhabi city.

There she learnt to take care of herself, with no family or community to surround her, she said.

She began hiking about five years ago and often hike alone.

“If something goes wrong, I have the basic skills to survive. I did a 24km hike at the Grand Canyon for 12 hours on my own, it was beautiful.”