Everything to play for

Mariam Hussein, the Somali national basketball ace, didn’t choose her sport. “I think it chose me,” she says. “I used to play with guys all the time. When I started playing with females it was much easier – because the guys weren’t giving me a chance, I’ll tell you that.” She’s laughing, but her voice is a shock.

The deep, husky, street-inflected American accent is more what you’d expect from Snoop in the The Wire than a 27-year-old Somali-born girl with a bleached topknot, who won a scholarship to the US and now lives in Canada. Watching her play at the Pan Arab Games in Doha last December, lobbing the ball into the hoop from the three-point line 20ft away, you’ve got to agree with one of her YouTube fans: “That tiny girl plays like dynamite. Real lioness! All the girls are great, but Mariam is full of talent and inspiration. Well done girls, God bless you all!”

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The “girls” are members of the Somali women’s team, which beat Kuwait and the home team, Qatar, before losing to Egypt at the Arab Games, but for most of them it was a triumph to be there at all. The basketball team was pulled together from players in Somalia, as well as from its diaspora nations, including the US, Canada, Germany and the UK. Some of the girls had never even seen each other, let alone played together, before they met in Doha.

But for the girls from Somalia, what a contrast the Khalifa International Stadium must have been compared with their regular training court inside the Mogadishu police headquarters, surrounded by security guards. Some of them had already received death threats from Al-Shabaab, the militant Islamic group inside Somalia, which sees sport for women as “un-Islamic”. But their response had been to carry on, “No one can kill me but Allah,” the captain Suweys Ali Jama told the Inter Press Service news agency.

Mariam Hussein, 26, basketball player, Somalia: ‘You should have it in your heart to do what you believe God wants you to do’

To Hussein, the girls were an inspiration. “[For them] there’s always that risk that you could be killed because you’re a female and you’re playing sports. The [Somali] government is saying they’re allowed to play, there’s just a certain group that are forcing others to follow what they believe, a small group that is causing all this violence. So [these girls] have the courage … I don’t know if I would do it, but it’s amazing to see that.”

Hussein is one of 75 female athletes who have taken part in a project undertaken by the French photographer Brigitte Lacombe and her sister, the film-maker Marian Lacombe, to make a collection of portraits of female athletes from many Arab countries around the world who play in competitive sports and in many cases excel at them. Some of the athletes will be coming to the Olympics, and an exhibition will open in London later this month. But the point of the project is not just to celebrate the Olympics but the achievements of female athletes from many Arab countries.

The project was initiated by Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, the 29-year-old daughter of the emir of Qatar, whose visibility has increased in the past couple of years partly because of her family’s huge (if not officially verified) spending power on the international art market, and partly because of her role as chair of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), which is spreading its influence and largesse far and wide, “building relationships through sporting and cultural endeavours”, as she wrote in her foreword to the catalogue of this year’s Damien Hirst exhibition at Tate Modern, which was sponsored by QMA (the works will travel to Qatar next year).

The Lebanon female basketball team. Winners of the gold medal at the Arab Games in Doha last December, the Lebanese women’s team beat the home team, Qatar, 72-34

Brigitte Lacombe, who is probably best known for her elegant black and white portraits of film stars and film directors, and for her work on theatre and film productions, was introduced to Sheikha Mayassa by a mutual friend connected to the Tribeca Film Institute in New York, where Lacombe has close ties. At that time the newly opened Doha Film Institute was holding the first of what has become an annual Doha-Tribeca Film Festival.

“She asked if I would be interested to work on a project for the film festival,” Lacombe explained, speaking from her studio in New York. “So I proposed to do portraits of film-makers in the Arab world. Because it is an international film festival, we would include, obviously, a few of the film-makers from Hollywood or Europe, but mainly we wanted to showcase film-makers from the Arab world and from the Gulf. Then we went on to include the Bollywood people … It was an extraordinary opportunity for me, but also for the film-makers, who didn’t know each other.”

Sarra Besbes, 23, fencer, Tunisia: 'I have three sisters and one brother, all fencers. It’s not like real life, where you don’t always get chances to excel. Fencing is my strong suit. My weapon is the épée. It is about intelligence and patience, finding your opponent’s weakness. Although a combat sport, it’s still a very feminine sport. The best fencers are in their thirties. I qualified for the London Olympics, but because I’m still young, I’m aiming for gold in 2016.'

Lacombe, who travels a lot, usually works alone, or with an assistant. So when she was asked if her photo sessions could be filmed, she said no. “At first I was very against it, then immediately I had the idea to ask my sister, who was with me at the time and is a really good film-maker. She used to run the news section of the French TV channel M6, and had already made several documentaries. She is the only, and the perfect person for me to collaborate with. So we did that for the film institute. We have about 220 or 240 portraits, which have already been published. That was also the start of the archive of the Doha Film Institute. So, every time I do a portrait, Marian does a video. It’s similar to how we are doing the athletes.”

One of Sheika Mayassa’s other missions is sport. Five years ago, Qatar was one of the three Arab countries, with Brunei and Saudi Arabia, named and shamed in the media for never having sent any female competitors to the Olympics. Since then, Qatar has gone into overdrive, introducing sport into schools for girls and boys, building world-class sports facilities – including an elite sports academy that selects and trains promising young athletes – promoting and funding community exercise programmes that cater to different age groups of both sexes, and educating the population about the health benefits of a more active life.

Ali’a Ahmed Madani, 20, weightlifter, Sudan. A silver medallist in the women’s 58kg weightlifting class at the Arab Games in Doha last December

Last November, The Atlantic magazine declared Qatar “the richest, fattest nation on earth”. Diabetes and obesity are serious problems. So the new obsession is as much about national self-preservation as it is about building an Olympics-worthy profile for 2024.

But the Lacombes’ project was not just focused on Qatar. It was to include as many of the 22 countries in the Arab League as possible (Syria’s membership is currently suspended) and to cover as many kinds of sport as possible practised by women within each country. On one level, of course, this was a brilliant way to promote Qatar’s new sporting image. But it also turned out to be a valuable investigation into the status of sport for women in countries where physical exercise is still severely restricted by religious tradition or directly banned and punishable by law.

Brunei is sending 19-year-old Maziah Mahusin to London this year to compete in the 400m hurdles. Qatar is sending three women: the 17-year-old sprinter Noor al-Malki; the swimmer Nada Arkaji, also 17, and the 19-year-old shooter Bahia al-Hamad.

Until late June, Saudi Arabia held out. Then suddenly it announced that Saudi women athletes could compete in the Olympics if they qualified. There is the catch. Saudi women are banned from competitive sports; they are forbidden from entering all-male national trials, which makes it impossible for them to qualify for international competitions, including the Olympics. There is still no physical education for girls in state schools, gyms were shut down in 2009-10; there are underground football and basketball leagues, but women are forbidden to enter stadiums or register at clubs. This last-minute capitulation over sport was seen as a way of avoiding the male Saudi team being banned by the IOC for being in contravention of the Olympic charter, rather than signalling any fundamental shift in policies towards women. In Saudi Arabia, women need permission from men to access medical care and they are still forbidden to drive. Inside the country, women feared the only response would be a conservative backlash. On 12 July it was announced Saudi Arabia would send two women athletes to the Olympics after all. They never qualified, but were given special invitations by the IOC.

Enas Mohamed Ghareb, 24, longjumper and triplejumper, Egypt, with her father, Captain Mohamed Ghareb. 'I started to like athletics because of my father, who is also my coach. He was a champion in Egypt. He was the one who encouraged me. There are a lot of girls in Egypt that get encouragement, but as we get older, the support becomes more of an issue. Yet we go out and challenge this. We don’t want to be discouraged from sports because we’ve grown up. Let us play until we decide to stop. There shouldn't be any prejudice against us continuing.'

In other countries, women athletes who have been successful represent inspiring role models for girls and young women whose own ambitions, it is hoped, might gradually break down resistance within families, even within governments, allowing women to take part in competitive sport, and demonstrate, as the Olympic charter states, that “sport is a human right” and “every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind”.

Last December, the Arab Games offered Lacombe and her sister the first opportunity to corral many of the leading female athletes in one place. They set up an outdoor studio in the athletes’ village. “We built a cyc’, you know (a cyclorama), which is like a half-circle of white,” she explains, “and we built it outside, in the sun. And then [nearby] there was a room in which to make the interviews, so you were in a controlled environment. The white background, the sky, the sun, it gives the whole project a style, but not a specific location.”

Feta Ahamada, 25, sprinter, Comoros Islands: 'In a country like Comoros, it’s not always easy to let a girl who isn’t married and is still studying go to the other end of the world. But my parents have no regrets. For the emancipation of women, sports can be the right portal. If covering your body or your hair makes you feel comfortable, it’s not a handicap. Some girls show up with red hair, others with veils. Personally, I don’t mind.'

I wondered if some of the girls hadn’t wanted to appear. “Some of the times it was not allowed by the coach,” Lacombe said, “because when we were just grabbing people [in the village] and they had to run it by their coach who was present, some of them were discouraged from participating, yes. And in the case of the very young competitors, they were preselected for us. Their parents were consulted beforehand and only those whose parents had agreed were presented to us.”

Once they’d been photographed, Marian Lacombe interviewed the girls on video, talking directly to camera. Despite being short, the videos are illuminating – the girls talk about their lives, how they feel when they compete, what it’s like at home, what some of the problems are.

Woroud Sawalha, 20, runner, Palestine: 'I trained by myself in the mountains of our village, where it’s filled with trees and nature. I was running before I wore the headscarf and continued after. I found a few difficulties but I got used to it. There's nothing wrong with it, as Islam promotes exercise and it doesn’t prevent women from pursuing sports. I don’t know what the dress code is for the Olympics, but I’ll wear something comfortable. When I return to my country I will try to change society’s views on women playing sports.'

The Palestinian runner, Woroud Sawalha, for example, had never seen an athletics track before she came to the Arab Games, nor had she worn a pair of spiked running shoes – she usually trains in the mountains near her village.

Maryam Al-Boinin, the 14-year-old Qatari equestrian, registered the difference a decade has made between herself and her older sister. “When my sister started riding, girls didn’t have chances, they didn’t have clubs or opportunities to do these sports. Now ... there are a lot of opportunities for girls to ride. What boys can do, girls can do. I’m so lucky.”

It seemed impossible, I said to Brigitte Lacombe, to avoid the political aspects of what she was involved in.

Maryam Al Boinin, 14, equestrian, Qatar, with her sister Mai: 'I got into riding from my sister. I used to think I wanted to be a businesswoman, but now I want to have a ranch, I want to be a gold medallist. If I’m having a bad day, or going through a rough time, horse riding takes it all away. When my sister started riding, girls didn’t have clubs or the chance to do sports. Now Qatar is different than before and there’s lots of opportunities for girls to ride. What boys can do, girls can do. I’m so lucky and I thank my sister for sharing this hobby with me.'

“Yes, I mean, to the extent that everything that you do in order to bring change is political. In fact, for me, it’s incredible to think that a simple thing of trying to bring women to be equal to men is political, and yet that is the aim of the project: to bring young girls and young women to realise they can and they should participate in sport. This is political, even if it is not meant to be.

“It is interesting for us,” Lacombe said, meaning people in the west, “who are so used to having everything we want, to see that these girls understand which battles are important to fight. They accept, within the rules that are imposed on them, that they have to be covered to some extent. And in a way they embrace that, they try not to make it their fight. I am full of admiration for the way they are able to be clever, actually, and see that that is worth the fight, and that can wait and that can come later.

Deena Abdullah Mahboob, 26, Taekwondo, Bahrain. At 5ft 2in, she competes in the women’s under-46kg class

“That’s why it was so emotional for us … to see so many young people from war-torn countries or extremely restrictive cultures. It was just extraordinary to see that they came through. And it’s not like they have great sponsors or anything, it’s just the most inspiring thing. I was in awe of these young women and girls, of their discipline and perseverance to do a sport at all, let alone the ones that actually excel at it.”

For Hussein, as she goes back to her job as a pipefitter on the oil rigs in Alberta – an example of gender equality if ever there was one – sport had opened a lot of doors. “It gives you confidence, it gives you structure, it gives you order – to be on time, practice, to encourage others … It gave me the ability to think I could do anything.”

Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sport, an exhibition of photographs by Brigitte Lacombe and videos by the film-maker Marian Lacombe, will be at Sotheby’s Gallery, St George Street, Mayfair, London W1, July 25 to August 11, daily, 10am-6pm, admission free

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