With the announcement earlier this year of the Bahrain 13 Endurance Team, Sara Gross takes a deeper look at the importance of the vision of the team and breaks down some potential preconceived ideas and biases about the women in the Middle East and their participation in sport. In part two of this article, we speak with the three professional women on the team, Jodie Swallow, Caroline Steffen and Daniela Ryf.

Text by Sara Gross | Lead image by Bahrain Endurance Team


Attending high school in the United Arab Emirates was a cultural shock for me. I was a blonde-haired Canadian girl who was already flexing a strong feminist muscle in my psyche profile. I went to the Middle East with a suitcase of preconceived ideas and biases and, as is often the case, I had some of those ideas confirmed but many more were destroyed when faced with the light of reality. I needed to update my information on a list of topics but the one thing that stuck with me beyond all the rest was that Muslim women are not who we think they are. 

A group who on the surface appear to be retiring and homogeneous are in fact confident and heterogeneous behind closed doors. Put a bunch of women together in a room and behind the abaya it’s all heels, Gucci and gold jewellery; big voices, strong opinions and loud music. When it comes to Muslim women, things are not as they seem.

A couple of months ago the Bahrain 13 Endurance Team was announced by triathlon prince Chris McCormack and real life prince, His Highness Shaikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, son of the current King of Bahrain. It’s a team that is, by definition, not only a team, but a vision of Human Health and Wellness for the people of Bahrain. Offering such a vision to the men and women of Bahrain could be worth a king’s ransom if developed into reality.

Prince Nasser has an exemplary record when it comes to sport in his country. He is the current Chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth Sports and the President of The Bahrain Olympic Committee. His vision for the Bahrain 13 is as follows:

• To promote health and wellness, passion, participation and camaraderie

• To create pathways to provide guidance for future champions through strong role models and management team.

(c) Challenge Bahrain | Getty Imahes

(c) Challenge Bahrain | Getty Images

The team is comprised of 10 men and three women. It’s not worth asking who came up with these numbers, but if women are going to represent only 23% of the team, Macca and the Prince have chosen three strong, talented women in Jodie Swallow, Caroline Steffen and Daniela Ryf.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is comprised of 13 Islands in the Arabian Gulf that cover only 676 square kms and hold a population of 754, 000. The country has a constitutional monarchy and is governed by Sharia Law which is a formal system of governance covering public, personal and family law. With the succession of the current King (Nasser’s father) in 1999 came political liberalisation and democratic elections to government positions starting in 2002. Women are both allowed and encouraged to vote.

Frequent civil unrest stems from one fact: the ruling class are Sunni Muslims and the majority of the population are Shia. This asymmetry led to the Bahrain uprising in 2011, the goal of which was to achieve greater political freedom and equality for the majority Shi’it population. Torture and repression tactics continue to be used by the ruling elites until this day, and accusations have been lobbied at Prince Nasser. While the Prince himself has been cleared of all wrong doings in an international court of law, both in Bahrain and the Middle East in general are rife with political and social inequalities and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. It is for this reason that Prince’s Nasser’s vision is so important for his people. Sport and physical activity bring people together and thus contain the power to create social change.

While the Prince’s vision for endurance sport is admirable, there are a number of questions and challenges that should be addressed, not least of these is: What about the women? Can women compete in triathlon too? Are they included in Prince Nasser’s vision of human health and wellness? To answer this we need to take a closer look at the various factors effecting Muslim women who wish to play sport.

In all but the most conservative Quranic interpretations, sport is allowable for women as long as it does not lead to the neglect of religious and other duties. By definition Islam is a religion of submission to the will of Allah. In a way that most outsiders find difficult to understand, life as a Muslim requires a primary orientation towards the divine. Religion is not part of life, but the whole of it. It is at once a religion and a culture. For the Muslim-athlete merging her desire to play sport with her theology is of utmost importance.

(c) Challenge Bahrain | Getty Images

(c) Challenge Bahrain | Getty Images

The main hurdle a sporty Muslim encounters is that women shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for sexual propriety and family honour. Decisions about sporting environments and clothing can cause controversies within families, communities and with religious leaders. Some Muslim women choose to participate in western kit, while others choose to cover their head, arms and legs and still others prefer a sex-segregated setting in which to pursue physical activity.

Interpreting verses like this one is at the heart of the issue:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze, and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must (ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands and certain family members. (Quran 24:31)

Some interpret Quranic verses such as these to be more morally or spiritually based and others are more literal. For the latter, the hijab is not just a cultural choice, but an expression of faith. Still other women feel that their faith requires an avoidance of mixed-sex environments for sport:

…. And stay the wives of Muhammed quietly in your houses and make not a dazzling display… (Quran 33:33)

Factions that interpret the above passage literally may prevent women from participating in sport entirely.

But for almost every problem, there is a solution. If McCormack and the Prince are genuine in their desire to improve health and wellness in Bahrain and they see the need to reach the women as well as the men, then many solutions are available.

For those whose religiosity only allows them to participate in sex segregated environments, triathlon would need to come to them. Providing dedicated women-only swim times at indoor pools and providing bikes, trainers and walled running tracks would go a long way towards helping more women get active.

For those who prefer to cover, clothing brands should (and do!) provide hijab in materials suitable for a variety of sports. Take for example www.capsters.com. This company makes head coverings in every material from lycra to fleece. This may sound funny to us, but to many Muslim women, it can make the difference between going out for a run or not.

For those who choose a less literal interpretation of the Quran, participation in community events such as a triathlon is already happening. A quick glance at the results from Challenge Bahrain last December reveals that many women swam, biked and ran their way through 112km from both Bahrain and neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Celebrating these women could go a long way towards changing perceptions of Muslim women, both in the context of the Arabian Gulf and globally.

(c) Challenge Bahrain | Getty Images

(c) Challenge Bahrain | Getty Images

Take for example, Bahraini native and Olympic swimmer Sameera Al Bitar. Sameera represented Bahrain in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. The 25-year-old has now turned her attention to triathlon and has accomplished great things for women in her country. Because of Sameera, Bahrain became the first country in the Arabian Gulf to have a swim team specifically for women. Take sport to women in female-only environments and they will participate.

Lastly, one of the biggest challenges that Muslim women in Bahrain and elsewhere face, are Western biases and criticisms of Muslim women. Imagine a photo of an Arab woman on her bike, gritting her teeth as she bears down on the pedals. Not exactly our current image of the women of Saudi Arabia, yet their names are scattered though out the results list for Challenge Bahrain. This kind of image could challenge dominant perceptions of Muslim femininity not only in their own culture and context, but also in ours.

The Bahrain 13 and its related vision manifest a lot of potential to create change. The initiative is bringing money into our sport, supporting some of our best professional athletes and putting triathlon on the middle-eastern map. It is now up to the leaders of this initiative to figure out how to create change for the people of Bahrain in an environment torn by religious differences and social inequalities. I hope that the Prince will extend his vision to the women of his country and help provide facilities that allow them to be active in their religious context. I also hope that we allow the cultural connections being made through our sport to change the way we think about the women of Bahrain and the Muslim world in general.



About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP

Serious about what I do, but don’t take myself too seriously

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2 Responses

  1. Meredith Novack

    Thank you for an excellent article that will provoke more needed conversation and hopefully inspire more women to race!
    Sincerely, Meredith Novack

  2. Hussain Bader

    It makes me happy to see when western visitors comes to Bahrain and neigbouring country with an open mind and try to understand the religion, history and culture and not judge by what they see in main stream media.

    Thank you for visiting Bahrain and I hope to see you again.

    Ma’a salamah


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