The Egyptian female kata team, including Shaimaa Mohamed, competing in 2013
The gym in Shubra, one of Cairo's largest districts, was like a scene from the Battle of the Titans. The women wrestlers training there pinned each other to the ground in thunderous clashes. In a matter of minutes, they had transformed from veiled Egyptian women into solid rocks. Despite being cornered by a squad of 30 children practicing karate, they seemed laser-focused, unaware of the noise and the room's dimensions.
Although the wrestlers here are among the best athletes in the country, they deal with low pay, little recognition, and limited opportunities in the sport, because they are women. Egyptian female athletes do not only face the challenges female athletes face in a male-dominated sports industry, but the additional challenges of the country's stringent gender norms.
"Many people in Egypt are afraid athletes will lose their femininity, get injured, or lose their virginity," said Shaimaa Mohamed, an Egyptian gold medalist in karate. Shaimaa does not find this amusing. She was careful to dispel the myth that female athletes are deflowered during training, as if she were afraid I would believe it. ¨Being an Egyptian athlete is not as easy as it is for foreign women, because of our culture."
The problem begins with the value on athleticism itself. "Physical education is not important to the government," said Lamia Bulbul, a scholar at the American University in Cairo, when we spoke in one of the city's air-conditioned cafés. Many public schools in Egypt lack sport facilities for PE classes, other than bare concrete courtyards. In 2011, the UNESCO had no record of PE classes in grades first through third in public schools throughout Egypt, and recorded only two hours per week for fourth through sixth grades. Young girls are not exposed to sports and, as Bulbul explained, "once they reach the ages between nine and 12, they disappear completely from playing and jumping in the streets." The moment a girl's childhood is betrayed by her growing breasts, Bulbul said, she becomes a spectator.
Cairo is home to many luxury sports clubs, but the memberships are expensive, making these sports clubs exclusive to the wealthy. Youth centers are publicly accessible, but these "are completely dominated by men," according to Hayam Essam, a former basketball player and founder of Girl Power, an initiative dedicated to empowering women through sports. Girl Power is a group of volunteers who go to youth centers once a week to create and coach female basketball teams. By creating safe spaces in youth centers, says Essam, parents don't object to girls exercising. Initiatives like Girl Power follow the United Nations Sports for Development and Peace's (UNOSDP) efforts to promote sports as a human right and a tool for development. Essam's initiative does just that by using basketball to empower young girls by including them in sports and exposing them to the sport´s indirect teachings of decision making, leadership, and self-esteem.
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The female athletes that triumph over the institutional and financial challenges still face a short-lived career in Egypt. ¨It's difficult to find athletes in their 30s in any sport," said Eman El-Abbasy, the first Egyptian female referee in the Karate Federation, when we spoke over the phone. But in Egypt, the problem isn't just aging out of the sport—it's also about familial obligations. ¨It is a community problem," El-Abbasy said, between deep sighs, "not a problem many athletes in the international community have to face."
Shaimaa, who is now 28, is one of the few Egyptian gold medalists who did not end her career after she got married and had her first child. "The problem is that when women get married, they stop," she told me. "It is our culture." Womanhood is often synonymous with motherhood in Egyptian society, and "the goals of an Egyptian woman before and after marriage are different," Shaimaa explained. Either athletes stop training on their own volition or "men ask female athletes to retire."
Karate is "difficult, difficult, difficult," she stressed as Basmala, her three-year-old, wailed for attention behind her. Before joining the national team, Shaimaa earned around $6.50 per championship she won. Her starting salary in the national team was $40, not including gear expenses. Before she retired, she was still only making $105 per month, which is a paltry sum considering Egypt's newly-instituted minimum wage is $170 per month. It wasn't until 2008 that the Karate Federation began providing athletes with health insurance.
The rate of female athletes quitting sports is higher than male athletes, Essam told me matter-of-factly. All athletes I spoke with attributed this to the overarching problem of low wages. This is way the government prefers to invest in male athletes, she continued. "Other than football players, if you are an athlete in Egypt, you don't do it as a job," she said over the phone with unmistakable pungency. "What you get in the basketball national team is peanuts." Eman, who is a dentist as well as an internationally certified referee, says working women are not like professional athletes, since they only make a symbolic sum. Once female athletes start a family, the "hobby" is no longer justified or affordable.
Each sports federation treats its athletes differently, and while some are better funded and provide better compensation, there is still a wage discrepancy between male and female professional athletes. "Professional [female] squash players get contracts at clubs that are nowhere equal to men's," said Raneem El Welily, an Egyptian squash champion. "In local tournaments, the men's prize money is higher."
After retirement, managerial opportunities are scarce. Shaimaa noted "it is so difficult for women athletes to become coaches." There are a lot of male coaches waiting in line, and women can't cut in. "Male coaches don't think it's fair for a young athlete to become a coach."
There problem is institutional, too. The Egyptian Ministry of Sports subjects potential national team coaches to a point system, which takes into consideration a coaches' education, medals, and experience. The conflict of interest between a woman's career as an athlete and her family duties impedes many women from gathering enough points.
Women represent just 2.5 percent of coaches in the basketball federation, according to Hayem. As a solution, Shaimaa suggests that world champions be made into coach assistants. "After one or two years, she should be able to coach by herself." At the moment, the Karate Federation has four or five female athletes that have the experience to become coaches; Shaimaa is one of them.
Egypt sent its largest delegation of female athletes to the 2012 Summer Olympics since it first participated in 1912—but there is still much work to be done. "We need more support from the government," Shaimaa told me. "In Egypt, first-place world champions make $15,000, while Turkish Mediterranean champions make $32,000. Plus," she adds, "they get a car."
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