Islam on the Playing Field: Sports Clubs Seek to Attract Young Muslim Women

By , Sebastian Eder and Cathrin Gilbert

Although many top German athletes come from immigrant families, very few Muslim girls and women in Germany play sports. Many parents see Western sports culture as a threat and keep their daughters away from coed athletic clubs. But some forward-thinking initiatives show how young female Muslims can be encouraged to take part in sports -- and how it can change their lives.

She had to summon up all of her courage to pose for a photograph with a basketball under her arm, an athlete wearing a headscarf, in a place she had been forbidden to enter: a gymnasium.

Sara K. tries to smile. She doesn't know how her father will react to the photo. She says he is a man who is quick to raise his hand. Sara, 20, was born in Berlin. Her father is from Algeria and her mother is a German who converted to Islam. Her parents don't want their daughter to participate in sports, saying that it isn't appropriate for a Muslim woman.

Despite her parents' wishes, Sara has been playing basketball and football secretly for years. She says she has a feeling of "lightness and independence" when she plays sports. But now she no longer wants to hide the fact that she is taking part in sport -- an activity that is completely normal for other women her age. She wants her parents to accept their daughter's passion for sports, which is why she is posing for this photo at a gymnasium in Kreuzberg, a Berlin neighborhood that is home to many immigrants and Germans of foreign descent.

"I want to be free," says Sara.

Positive Image

Sport generally has a positive image in Germany, where it is seen as promoting health and building character. Sports clubs are considered pillars of society because, ideally, they are places where values like community spirit and fair play are conveyed.

Why, then, do some parents forbid their daughters from doing sports?

Many Muslim girls who grow up in Germany are taught that sport isn't for women. Some 68 percent of 15-year-old Turkish boys are involved in organized sports. More than 30 percent of players on the under-17 national soccer team in the German Football Association have Turkish roots. Muslim men wrestle, box and do martial arts. Muslim women, on the other hand, are often told that physical exercise is a waste of time. Particularly fathers from poor backgrounds, who themselves have low educational levels, view sports clubs as places of shameless freedom -- places where their daughters don't belong.

Muslim women are the lost daughters of sports. They are also a good example of how difficult integration can be when people belong to different groups that have widely diverging worldviews.

According to a 2009 study by the Technical University of Dortmund, only 20 percent of 15-year-old Turkish girls in Germany belong to a sports club, compared with 42 percent of German girls in the same age group. In the language of social science, young Turkish women are referred to as a group that is "distant" from sport.

'The Girls Love to Move'

Ironically, girls from immigrant families do grow up with sports. The 1,200 students at the Carl-von-Ossietzky high school in Kreuzberg come from all over the world. Physical education is mandatory for all students, including Muslim girls.

"The girls love to move," says physical education teacher Gabriele Kremkow. The parents tolerate the classes because they don't want to jeopardize their daughters' education, but they also insist that "certain basic conditions" are met.

"We know that, for religious reasons, many Muslim girls have a problem playing sports in front of boys," says Kremkow. For this reason, girls and boys are taught physical education separately in the 7th to 10th grades. The classes are only mixed in the upper grades, because, as Kremkow says, students at that level can be expected "to reflect on things."

Sara K. graduated from the Carl-von-Ossietzky school a year ago. In addition to physical education, she also took special classes in basketball and represented her school in running competitions. She told her parents that she was taking private lessons in math.

The teachers covered for her when the parents asked questions. Kremkow, a member of the school administration for several years now, supports this approach. "We want to give the girls the opportunity to enjoy life."

The teachers once suggested to Sara's mother that she allow her daughter to join a sports club. "Have you ever seen a female athlete with a headscarf?" the mother asked. For her, the case was closed.

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