Sport, politics and religion

By Colette Gilhooley
26 May 2011

A combination of reflecting back on International Women’s Day and the anticipation of the Olympics may make this an opportune time to look at issues facing female athletes which have come to my attention recently.

It has been said that Pierre de Coubertin "revived the Olympic Games as an instrument of reconciliation, [yet] his successors as president of the International Committee have been tireless in their insistence that ‘politics’ should not interfere with sport." (Guttmann, 2003: 372).

The Olympic Games are an opportunity for people to demonstrate their sporting abilities and to represent their countries on an international stage and their identities as part of that culture which may, I would argue, include politics. Allen Guttmann has called attention to the link made by writers between economic systems and modern sports, suggesting that "modern sports are an example of Weberian instrumental rationality, a subtle means of social control." (Guttmann, 2003: 374).

If this is the case, then perhaps it is not surprising that some women’s sports have been given less coverage than others, reflecting how traditionally women have had fewer economic opportunities than their male counterparts. "Sports are the mirror image of – rather than an emancipatory alternative to – the repressive, exploitative, achievement-orientated world of work." (Guttmann, 2003: 374).

While one can acknowledge that sports are part of a cultural and economic system which could be argued to be ‘repressive’, I would like to suggest that the work of Florence Ayisi suggests an alternative to this idea.

In 2007 Florence Ayisi made a film called 'Zanzibar Soccer Queens' which is a documentary following a group of female footballers who are "a team of strong-willed women determined to better their lives and define new identities through playing football." In the interviews on the film, some of the men expressed their concerns regarding the tension between the football strips the women wear and the traditions of women’s dress code within a predominantly Islamic culture.

"The problem with women wearing shorts and exposing their bodies is that when men are watching they can be tempted," explains Abdallah Mzee, Koran School teacher. The problem seems to be the male gaze and the association of football and certain sports as being predominantly male.

Allen Guttmann (2003) states that in the sexual politics of modern sports, "women have refused to be content with conventionally feminine sports (like tennis) and have "intruded" into traditionally male sports (like rugby)’ (Guttmann, 2003: 370). He further suggests that if male sports have traditionally been an area in which to demonstrate the masculine "physical prowess", then women doing these sports should also, ideally, result in the opportunity for women to demonstrate their physical prowess; however, Guttmann notes that this is not the case (Guttmann, 2003: 370).

Guttmann argues that the "sexual politics" in modern sport is, among other things, about the transition between the conventional sports played by genders and women breaking these traditional boundaries (Guttmann, 2003: 370). Mr Msoma, Chairman of Sports Council Zanzibar, states that there are some understandings, which seem to be predominantly psychological issues and misunderstood ideas, regarding barring women’s participation in sports which the authorities are struggling to deal with in Zanzibar.

Playing football allows the women the opportunity to transcend traditional gender boundaries of their culture and redefine their identities using football as a way to do this. Warda, a midfielder of the football team, has contrasted religion and football demonstrating the importance of both influences in her life: "When playing football you can say anything, but when praying you have to say what you have been told by God."

By contrasting religion and football, Warda is able to demonstrate the freedom she feels as an individual on the soccer pitch where she is able to speak for herself, compared to the set performative practices which are part of her religion. Although some women have been discouraged from playing football, many of them see football as a therapeutic influence which has helped them to deal with the traumas in their lives. Furthermore, it has provided them with positive opportunities including the chance to travel and learn, which will help them to break free from the oppressive patriarchal influence inherent in their culture: "Unveiling their soccer dreams is evidence of social change and personal development, emancipation and empowerment through sports."

While sport can be empowering, it is not without its dangers, particularly when there is an association between sports and cultural identity. Eudy Simelane was captain and midfielder of South Africa’s women’s soccer team Banyana Banyana. Simelane was a Lesbian feminist activist who was raped and killed in 2008 by members of her town because of her sexuality. At the time the state did not recognise the practice of ‘Corrective Rape’ (an attempt to punish and change somebody’s sexuality through rape) or rapes that were the result of hate crimes against the homosexual community.

Through her work, Simelane was able to try and combine politics and sport and raise awareness of women’s rights by being the first openly lesbian football player in South Africa.

Many of the reasons given in the interviews against homosexuality seem to be connected to religious or cultural reasons, including the threat to the traditional cultural understanding of genders and the performative roles that go with them. Homosexuality has been described as being ‘Unafrican‘ and not part of South African culture; however, this can lead to questions on the nature of what ‘culture’ consists of and who has the authority to decide.

Jody Kollapen, Former Chair of the South African Human Rights Commission has described culture as being "dynamic, our cultures have evolved over thousands of years and therefore culture has to keep up to date." Sport and culture are, indeed, very closely linked, and I think it would seem like a missed opportunity for the Olympic Games and sport to not engage with political aspects of culture. Sport is a platform for opportunity for attention to be brought to cultural issues, such as in the case of Eudy Simelane and the very real concerns facing female athletes' ability to realise and perform their identities through sports.

Reference:

Allen Guttmann, 'Sport, Politics and the Engaged Historian', Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 363-375, New Delhi, 2003.

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© Colette Gilhooley is currently studying for an Mlitt in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling.


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