July 20, 2005

Pakistani women tread carefully for sporting chance

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani sportswomen have become
caught up in a struggle between conservatives and liberals over
what kind of Muslim country Pakistan should be.

Twice in recent weeks, mixed-sex road running races have
been disrupted because conservatives, who say women and men
should not play sports together, objected.

Television images of women athletes and their supporters,
including a prominent human rights lawyer, being roughed up
have put the issue of women in sports squarely on the political

"We don't believe in gender discrimination. We're not
against the progress of women, but women need to adhere to
Islamic and social values while taking part in any walk of
life, including sports," said conservative politician Liaquat

Baloch is secretary general of an alliance of conservative
religious parties known as the Muthaida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

Members of the MMA, the main opponents of President Pervez
Musharraf's doctrine of moderate Islam, were behind the
disruption of recent mixed-sex races in two cities in Punjab

Officially there are no restrictions on women in sports in
the predominantly Muslim country of 150 million people.

But in reality they face a range of religious and social
taboos that other women do not have to contend with.

Pakistani women athletes, for instance, must almost always
wear the traditional shalwar kameez, a long, loose shirt and
baggy trousers, or full track suit, no matter how hot or

Many Pakistani women only go out in public with a male
relative so it can be difficult for women to train or travel to
tournaments alone.

Such issues, together with government indifference, mean
Pakistani woman have never made a mark at the international
level, sports fans say.

"Pakistani women have taken part in the Olympics and
international cricket tournaments but have never been taken
seriously," said a woman cricket player from Peshawar, capital
of conservative North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

"There's no emphasis by the government to encourage us,"
said the cricketer, who declined to be identified.

Madeeha Abbasi, captain of a women's cricket team from
another conservative city, Quetta, said there was a range of
views on women in sports.

"The attitude of parents toward allowing their daughters to
take part in sports differs from class to class and city to
city," Abbasi said.

"Those belonging to the upper or middle class normally
don't have problems. But the situation is different for those
from Quetta or Peshawar."


North West Frontier Province, which is ruled by the MMA, is
the epicenter of the controversy over women in sports.

Liberal activists say the provincial government is intent
on the "Talibanization" of the province, a reference to
Afghanistan's hardline former rulers.

Rashida Ghaznavi heads a recently formed separate
provincial sports board for women. She has to tread carefully
-- trying to encourage women while not offending the
conservative government and community.

Ghaznavi says her immediate aim is to avoid a complete ban
on women and girls playing cricket and other sports in NWFP.

"Here the people don't like their womenfolk interacting a
lot with the opposite sex. But we don't want girls deprived of
opportunities to take part in sports," she said.

A Peshawar team recently played in the first women's
national cricket championship. Matches were held in Karachi and
Lahore -- Pakistan's two biggest cities -- under the
supervision of male umpires and coaches.

But Ghaznavi had to send a woman manager and coach with the
Peshawar team in the hope of averting a damaging fuss.

"Controversies will only be detrimental to women's sports."

Ghaznavi's sports board has organized a cricket tournament
between teams from some of the province's districts, which was
held in Peshawar.

"Some 70 girls participated and more are showing an
interest, which is a good sign," she said.

But the tournament had to be held behind the walls of a
women's college with only women allowed to watch and supervise.

"The provincial government has made it clear that females
can take part in cricket and other sports but in segregated
conditions," she said.

The MMA's provincial minister for sports, Raja Faisal
Zaman, denies discrimination.

"There is no gender bias in our sports set-up ... There is
no ban or restriction on girls in sports," he said.

"We're encouraging and giving them opportunities to take
part in sports. We've launched a separate sports directorate
for them and increased funding," he said.

Zaman said women's sports had to be separate because
parents didn't want their daughters training with male coaches.

Pakistani women are due to take part in the Islamic Games
in Tehran this month.