Why the Arab world's female athletes are going places

From Ons Jabeur to Bassant Hemida, we could be entering a golden age for women's sport here

The perception towards women’s sport in the Arab region has shifted. Female athletes are being celebrated and given wider platforms.
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When the Lionesses (England's women's football team) reigned supreme at Euro 2022 a few weeks ago in front of an ecstatic 87,000-strong crowd at Wembley Stadium, they clinched England’s first major football trophy since the men’s side won the 1966 World Cup.

That success shed light on women’s football in the UK like never before and has renewed hope that the game can finally start to get the attention it deserves.

The Lionesses are just one recent example among many of women in sport outperforming male counterparts, creating history along the way.

It’s particularly inspiring to see this happen in the Arab world, a region full of talent, but one where women often have to overcome cultural barriers in order to pursue a career in sports.

Rachel Daly of England celebrates with teammates during the England Women's Team Celebration at Trafalgar Square on August 01, in London. Getty

Billie Jean King always says “you have to see it to be it”. Now there is a young generation growing up in the Arab world that is witnessing a host of women athletes pulling off unprecedented achievements on the global stage and shaping up to be incredible role models.

Last October, Tunisian Ons Jabeur became the first ever Arab-born tennis player – man or woman – to break into the top 10 in world rankings.

On June 27, she rose to number two, making her the highest-ranked African woman of all time. She made history again two weeks later when she reached the Wimbledon final, something no Arab player had ever accomplished in the professional era.

Elena Rybakina, the Kazakhstani player who defeated Jabeur in the final, paid tribute to the Tunisian and her pioneering efforts during her victory speech on Wimbledon Centre Court.

“You're an inspiration, not only for the juniors but for everybody,” Rybakina told Jabeur.

Elena Rybakina (left) with the The Venus Rosewater Dish after defeating Ons Jabeur in The Final of the Ladies' Singles on day thirteen of the 2022 Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon, on July 9. PA Wire

Tennis grandee Venus Williams shared similar sentiments 12 months earlier when Jabeur defeated her en route to the Wimbledon quarter-finals.

“You can’t limit her to just inspiring women in the Arab region. She’s inspiring all kinds of women, including me,” said Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion and former world number one.

Venus’s sister Serena, arguably the greatest WTA player of all time, chose Jabeur to be her doubles partner when she returned to the tour in June after a one-year absence.

With Serena recently announcing she will be ending her professional career at the upcoming US Open, her match with Jabeur in Eastbourne could very well be the last time we witness her on a doubles court.

A humble personality with a great sense of humour and a huge heart, Jabeur has seen her popularity soar in recent months and has shot to national hero status back home.

Upon arrival to Tunisia after Wimbledon, she received the country's National Order of Merit from President Kais Saied, and a few days ago, Jabeur was honoured by Tunisia’s postal service, which created a stamp bearing the 27-year-old’s image to celebrate her trailblazing career.

Arab women have been knocking down stereotypes and hitting new milestones for many decades, but the due recognition hasn’t always followed.

What we’re seeing now is a major shift in perception towards women’s sport in the region, where female athletes are being celebrated and are given wider platforms that will allow them to touch more souls across the Arab world and beyond.

Footballers Farah Jefry of Saudi Arabia and Nouf Al Anzi of UAE both appeared in Adidas commercials alongside superstar Zinedine Zidane, and took part in the launch of the Qatar 2022 World Cup’s official ball.

Support is needed to see women’s sport is as just 'sport', undefined by gender

Egyptian track sprinter Bassant Hemida has become an instant household name after she claimed a historic 100 metre and 200m double at the Mediterranean Games in Oran, Algeria last month.

Her gold medal-winning performances saw her set two Games records and become the first woman from Egypt to top the podium in a track and field event in the history of the competition.

Hemida was received by the Egyptian Armed Forces upon touching down in Cairo, was given a nod from Mohamed Salah, who congratulated her and urged her to “keep breaking records” and turned up on many of the nation’s biggest television talk shows.

Maria Isabel Perez, of Spain, Mujinga Kambundji, of Switzerland, and Bassant Hemida, of Egypt, from left to right, compete in a Women's 60 meters heat at the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, on March 18.  AP

Egyptian women also took team gold in table tennis in Oran, with a squad that featured 14-year-old prodigy Hana Goda. The young teen has been in the spotlight for several years now and already has nearly 1 million followers across Facebook and Instagram. Goda was crowned Under-19s African champion last month and is a star in the making.

At the recently concluded World Athletics Championships in Oregon, Tunisian Marwa Bouzayani clocked a personal best of 9:12.14 to qualify for the 3,000m steeplechase final. The 25-year-old took silver at the Mediterranean Games a couple of weeks earlier.

“After winning a medal at the Mediterranean Games in Oran my goals got bigger. I made a promise to myself that I will no longer compete at these high level competitions just to participate. My eyes are on the medals and I will definitely achieve that if the ideal conditions are provided,” wrote Bouzayani on her Instagram.

Swimming sensation Farida Osman bounced back from a disappointing Tokyo Olympics by reaching the finals of the 50m and 100m events at the World Championships last June in Budapest, setting new African records in the process.

Osman, a two-time World Championship bronze medallist, is one of the most recognisable names in women’s sport in Egypt and the Mena region. The star swimmer, six-time squash world champion Nour El Sherbini and top-50 tennis player Mayar Sherif, are among a small group of women that have managed to secure lucrative sponsorship deals rarely given to Arab female athletes in the past.

The landscape is looking positive, but it’s just a start. In order to capitalise on all these individual successes, federations, organisations and the general public must throw their support behind women’s sport and see it as just "sport", undefined by a specific gender.

Give women athletes the proper backing, broadcast their competitions on television, dedicate column inches to them, follow their journeys and you’ll see what they can accomplish; many have already done so much without any of the above. Imagine what they can do with just a little bit more.

Published: August 19, 2022, 6:00 PM