Can Sports Raise Middle-Eastern Women's Self-Esteem?

When I opened the Globe and Mail this week, I was absolutely delighted to see the centre section with a two- page spread of the intense faces of three female Iranian athletes in the full concentration of a rugby game. The intensity and sheer physical determination of these women jumped off the page, and it filled me with hope that young women in all countries will one day have the right to experience the joy of sport.

After months of reading only the bad news about women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, not having basic human rights in Afghanistan, not being able to keep their own children in the case of divorce in Iran, women sentenced to jail for challenging the right to vote, or constantly threatened with violence or death just for speaking out; it lifted me to see these healthy, athletic women, still in hijabs, exerting themselves enthusiastically and athletically after the ball.

The article that followed was not that encouraging -- talking about the erosion of women in sport under the current regime. It highlighted the Iran of the 1960s when the rights of women were progressive and where women and girls could play sport unencumbered by rules such as what they're facing today -- girls can only play inside, women shouldn't be seen playing sport, or even the outright banning of a particular sport.

Filmmaker Faramarz Beheshti was interviewed about his upcoming film Salam Rugby, which gives a glimpse into modern Iranian society where the rights of women continue to erode, by the Globe and Mail. Beheshti said, "These women are incredibly spirited and lively, but you can see the damage done by 32 years of this archaic regime...there is a carpet of sadness over these girls lives." I look forward to seeing the movie.

I have witnessed first-hand the lives of girls changed by a community's willingness to give girls a chance. In Pakistan, "Right To Play" runs programs in Peshawar and Quetta that have over 20,000 girls regularly playing sport and learning through the power of play. Women and girls who play sport build self-esteem, the very thing that will have them stand up for their rights, not accept abuse, and push for more freedom for their own children.

When "Right To Play" first came to Pakistan, there was so much resistance to girls playing in public view that a wall around the outdoor play area had to be constructed. Five years later the wall has come down, and the community has become a huge supporter of "Right To Play" and the important role sport and sport leadership contributes to their community. Most women who have played sport in this country for the last 30 years have seen how attitudes towards girls and women can profoundly and positively shift over a single decade.

In the early 80s, when I lifted weights in the boiler room at University of Western Ontario, I had to put up with a few cat calls and guys who would go out of their way to make me feel uncomfortable as I worked around their loud grunting and slamming of barbells. But the female rowers before me had already laid claim to the right to lift in this space and to be respected; I benefited. In 1984, the women's distance was finally changed from 1000m to the same 2000m that the men rowed.

I expect that there are female rowers today that have no idea that the distances used to be different, never mind the trailblazing that brought forward this change. It's ironic that in Canada in the 21st century we too still needed trailblazers like Sarah Burke to allow women to compete in the half-pipe in skiing.

I can't imagine what it is like to live in a country whose regime makes it illegal to play sports and to experience the sheer joy of playing. Things can change, and they will, but only if we all keep pushing to keep these stories of women around the globe in our papers; that we keep joining together to promote the importance of sport and play for the health of women and girls; and we remember that we may live thousands of miles away from one another, and be separated by religion or culture, but we are joined by our humanity and our respect for one another.