Pakistani female cricket players.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
GUANGZHOU, China — Back home, the Pakistani women's cricket team is anonymous, especially compared with their illustrustrious male counterparts.
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But after their gold medal triumph at the Asian Games, the girls in green were basking in the spotlight for a change. It was Pakistan's first Asian Games gold medal in eight years — a milestone that supporters say points to the need for more education and opportunities in sports for women in Muslim countries.
The Asian Games, an Olympic-style event drawing athletes from a collection of countries representing two-thirds of the world's population, is the biggest stage for many of the female competitors.
In parts of the continent, playing sports is often considered inappropriate for women and out of step with traditional gender roles. Consequently, resources for coaching, training and competition generally lag behind the funding set aside for male athletes.
Pakistan came to Guangzhou with 25 female athletes out of a total of 169, participating in cricket, judo, shooting, squash and sailing.
Iran sent a women's team to compete in kabaddi, and all wore head coverings in their opening match: a 62-18 win over Taiwan on Monday.
War-torn Afghanistan has seven women in its 67-member delegation, all of them competing in martial arts events. Conservative Saudi Arabia has 170 men and not a single woman.
In comparison, host China, a sporting powerhouse that has invested heavily in developing elite athletes of both genders, has 458 women and 507 men.
One pioneering women's squad has been taking the field in Guangzhou with traditional Muslim head coverings, showing that religious obligations can coexist with sports.
"The world has developed and it is time for women to take their place," said Maryam Ahmed Al-Suweidi of the Qatari handball team, just one of two female Arab teams in Guangzhou. The other is the football team from Jordan.
Olympic Council of Asia president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti, said 80 percent of the west Asian national Olympic committees had females participating in Guangzhou.
The handballers are young and their inexperience has shown during lopsided losses to Taiwan and Kazakhstan, but Al-Suweidi says it's just the beginning, noting that participation in women's sports has been on the rise in her home region.
Pakistan cricket captain Sana Mir noted that her squad used to just
compete against women's teams but now also play men's under-19 and
"I think if women in Pakistan are given opportunities to play sports
with proper coaches and facilities, there's no reason why they should
not perform — not only at Asian Games — but also in major international
tournaments," she said. "I believe if you do something with honesty you
can gain a lot in the field of sports."