After a head-clearing, spirit-lifting, blue-sky Colorado run Wednesday morning, I opened my newspaper to a headline which took my breath away — and left me keenly appreciative of how far female athletes in the United States have come:
Of the roughly 2,400 people registered for the April 10 race (a 10k, half, and 26-miler to raise money for refugee children), 385 were women — 266 of them locals who trained long and hard to proudly compete in their home city; the rest female athletes planning to fly in to show their solidarity with their Palestinian sisters. That won’t happen now, due to a persistent, institutionalized sexism that continues to rob girls and women of the joy and camaraderie of sport in many corners of the world.
“We don’t want women and men mixing,” Gaza’s Islamic cabinet secretary, Abdul-Salam Siam told the Associated Press. “We don’t want any woman uncovered.”
Archaic, misogynistic, discriminatory thinking, right?
But it wasn’t so long ago that female athletes had to sneak their way into male-dominated competitions here at home.
It wasn’t until 1972 that the storied Boston Marathon first officially allowed women to run the course. (That didn’t stop Roberta Gibb, who hid behind a bush and slid into the pack in 1966, clocking an unofficial time of 3:21:25; or Katherine Switzer, who signed up with her initials only, lined up with the guys, and finished the race despite the director’s clumsy efforts to physically pull her off the course once he realized she was a woman.)
It would be 1984 before women were allowed to compete in the marathon and other distance events at the Olympics. (It took that long to convince the powers-that-be that, contrary to popular belief, running didn’t impair our ability to have babies).
And it was just this past summer before women participated in every sport at the Olympics, and every participating country (including long-time outliers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei) had women on their Olympic teams.
Progress, yes. But these athletes still pay a big price:
While she was greeted with cheers at the 2012 Olympic games, Judo competitor Wojdan Shaherkani, 16, from Saudi Arabia, was publicly labeled the “prostitute of the Olympics” by the clergy back home. Clad in a head scarf and baggy head-to-toe clothes, sprinter Tahmina Kohistani, of Afghanistan, enjoyed standing ovations in London. But in Kabul, she endured daily heckling as she tried to train in a dilapidated stadium. And on her Facebook page, someone posted “You are a Shame to Muslim women.”
The fight is hardly over.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, the Saudi government is still “systematically discriminating against women in sports and physical education,” prohibiting it in schools, and banning women from public sports facilities. The story is similar around the Middle East, and elsewhere.
For me — a seven-time marathoner with two beautiful girls who are growing up running, and hiking, and playing soccer, and skiing — the thought of life without our sports is chilling. They lift us up, bring us closer, keep us healthy, and make us whole. How could that be shameful?
In honor of International Women’s Day this Friday, March 8, we’ll run a few miles for Roberta, and Katherine, and Tahmina, and all the women who should be running the Gaza Marathon.
And we will be so very thankful that we can.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance journalist and mother of four who writes about health, medical science, and running. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.