by Aaron Weiss
Originally Published August 26, 2016 on HuffPost
The upcoming narrative feature film “Roads to Olympia” chronicles the stories of three young athletes, in three different countries, striving to make it to the Olympic Games. In this installation of our examination of the social issues raised by “Roads To Olympia,” we focus on women’s rights.
The film’s heroine is Muna, a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia who excels on the soccer field. In her country, women are not encouraged to, and often are forbidden from, playing sports. Female athletes in that part of the world are often looked at as inferior, even disgraceful. Muna is forced to hide her true passion from her mother, for fear of being told to stop playing and bringing about family shame. To protect them and herself, Muna competes in secret, as a member of an underground women’s soccer club.
The actress who brought Muna to life is Pascale Seigneurie. The Lebanese-born thespian empathizes with Muna’s struggles, having studied ballet her entire life. “Unfortunately, athletic ambition can be stifled very early on for girls in the region. If you grow up hearing that physical activity is inappropriate or shameful for a woman, one might be deterred” she admitted. “I hope the character of Muna can help demonstrate that physical activity is not exclusively a man’s thing.”
Muna’s struggle is not unique to the fictitious film world contained in Roads to Olympia. The fight for women’s equality in sports is an ongoing battle that peppers the headlines daily in every corner of the world. Two significant stories of women in sports took place in the United States this year: The fight of the U.S. national women’s soccer team for salary equality with their male counterparts, as well as, the overtly sexist media coverage during this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio. However, pure gender issues are not the only obstacles facing female athletes. Cultural and religious issues also play a prominent role in the fight for women’s equality in the athletic arena.
Athletes such as Aya Medany and Ibtihaj Muhammed are prime examples of women with extra hurdles. These two trailblazers have taken the international sports scene by storm. In addition to both being Olympians, they tackle the unique issue of female athletic uniforms. While most athletes take their uniform options for granted, those with religious restrictions do not have the same freedoms.
Medany, an Egyptian pentathlete and Muhammed, a U.S. born fencer, are Muslim. Their religion requires them to wear a hijab, a woman’s headscarf, which is accompanied by wearing clothes to cover their entire body at all times, including during athletic competition. With lack of education around this tradition, and Islamophobic fears, hijabs are often seen as a distraction from on-field accomplishments, and has even prevented some from competing altogether.
In 2004, at the tender age of 14, representing her home country of Egypt during the Athens Olympic Games, Aya Medany was the youngest participant in the pentathlon. This challenging Olympic event combines running, swimming, fencing, pistol shooting and equestrian. After struggling at her debut in Athens, Medany ramped up her training and quickly rose up through the ranks, competing in a total of three Olympic Games. While she failed to claim an Olympic medal, nobody questioned her talent. She was a three-time Pentathlon World Cup winner and was successful at various other international competitions.
While training for the 2012 Olympics in London, Medany rededicated herself to her Muslim faith, choosing to wear a hijab as a way to show her thanks to God for all of her accomplishments. This meant she had to wear a full body bathing suit for the swimming portion of the pentathlon. The International Swimming Federation chose to ban full body swimwear amongst worry that they would create a competitive advantage for those who wore them due to their sleek texture. When her appeal for an exemption on the grounds of religious expression was denied, Aya was faced with a very difficult choice. Just as in Roads to Olympia where Muna deals with the challenging internal debate of sports versus culture, Medany, the 2014 IOC Women and Sport trophy winner for Africa, had to decide between reaching her Olympic goal and following the laws of her religion. In the end, she decided to go to London and compete in the hopes of making a statement to women around the globe. “God chose me to send a message that sport is for everyone,” she said.
Now 27, Medany is retired from competing in the pentathlon. She mentors young athletes in Egypt, particularly females, teaching them to remove the obstacles standing in their way of athletic success, while maintaining respect for their traditions. “I want to challenge the belief that girls can’t reach their goals even while getting married and starting a family,” said Medany, as she strives to develop the next generation of Munas. One of her protégés, 12 year old Maria Muhammed, credits her in making a positive difference for women athletes everywhere. “She fights for what she loves and does it no matter what. She stands up for women in sport. She’s very courageous,” Maria said.
Ibtihaj Muhammad’s story is a bit different. Growing up in New Jersey, Ibtihaj always played sports, but wearing a hijab brought her negative attention. She stood out from her peers. As tensions towards Muslim Americans in her area intensified following 9/11, Ibtihaj was often the victim of jokes and bullying.
One day, her mother discovered the sport of fencing. She encouraged Ibtihaj to try it out, as the fencer’s mask would cover her hijab, allowing her to compete without having to defend her choice in clothes. “With fencing, I finally had a sport where I didn’t have to adjust the uniform,” said Muhammad, “I could just be recognized for my abilities.”
Those abilities earned her a full scholarship to Duke University where she majored in International Relations and African Studies while continuing to fence. She became a three-time All American. That type of athletic talent earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team at this summer’s Games in Rio where she made a major impact, winning the bronze medal in fencing.
With her successful run at the Rio Olympics complete, Miss Muhammad’s focus now shifts to her many other endeavors, including Louella, a clothing company she started with her siblings. They make casual women’s clothing which combines the requirements of Islam with contemporary fashion. She is using her rising popularity to bring attention to the important issues facing her community. “I owe it to people who look like me and fight these struggles every day with this fear-mongering and hate we are experiencing,” she said, “I owe it to all of us to combat these notions of bigotry. I have to speak out against it, for African-Americans, and for other minorities in this country.”
She still faces injustices herself, she was hassled by a volunteer at SXSW, to remove her hijab, even though she was one of the speakers. Ibtihaj remains undeterred, she is the first Muslim-American wearing a hijab to compete for the United States in the Olympics. Qualifying for Team USA was not an achievement Miss Muhammad enjoyed alone. “The little girls I saw myself in, I wanted to qualify for them,” she proclaimed, “I wanted them to know there were no boundaries for the goals they set for themselves.” A motivation that drew praise from President Barack Obama.
There remains plenty of work on the horizon. As Miss Muhammad’s efforts begin to affect change in the United States, Seigneurie admits that her region must begin to follow suit as well. “The situation is much more complicated for female athletes in the Middle East due to political and religious restrictions on women’s activities,” she said, “but I remain optimistic that things will change at their own pace there too.”
Like Medany, Muhammad and Seigneurie, the creative team behind “Roads to Olympia”hopes to show young women, particularly those in the Middle East, that success in sports is something that is very much within their reach. “As a female producer, it is of the utmost importance that I champion the narratives of strong women such as Muna,” said Katherine Randel, the film’s producer. “We want women of all ages in the region to have the opportunity to see sports as an achievable activity and a vehicle for success.”
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