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

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.
Von Lukas Eberle, Sebastian Eder und Cathrin Gilbert

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.

Lack of Sports Culture

In Islam, the body is considered a gift of God, to be preserved and strengthened. Nevertheless, in many countries of the Islamic world, sports do not have the same social significance as in Western countries. There is often no mass sports culture. In Turkey, the most successful Muslim-majority country at the Olympics, only 2 percent of people are members of sports clubs -- compared with 34 percent in Germany.

Many immigrant families view Germany's sports club culture as something that is very foreign. For fathers, in particular, sports clubs are not an opportunity for their daughters but a threat.

Umet E. is a short, balding man who works as a janitor in Berlin. He has been living in Germany for a long time. He speaks German with his wife and their daughter, and they watch German television. The daughter, who is 12, learned how to swim in school. She recently asked her parents if she could join a swim team.

Umet says that it's important for a child to be able to swim well. But he would never tolerate his daughter being part of a team. A strange man could approach her, he says. It's a fear that troubles him. But he also fears the reactions of friends and relatives. "They would all consider it shameful if our daughter were jumping around in a swimsuit in front of the eyes of German men." The family would be dishonored and he, the father, would lose face. Their life in the community would be finished, says Umet.

For years, politicians have treated sports as an ideal intermediary between cultures. German national teams include professional athletes with roots in Turkey, Poland and Tunisia. There were 39 athletes of immigrant descent on the German team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "Clubs are schools of democracy, in which immigrants can get to know our language, culture and behavior," says Maria Böhmer, the German government's integration commissioner.

Last year Chancellor Angela Merkel posed for a photo with footballer Mesut Özil in the team locker room after an international match in Berlin. The midfielder, whose grandparents emigrated to Germany from Turkey, is seen as a prime example of successful integration.

'I Consider Myself a Modern Muslim Woman'

The chancellor could soon be posing for another symbolic photo. The FIFA Women's World Cup begins in Germany at the end of June. One of the players on the German women's soccer team is Fatmire Bajramaj, a 23-year-old Muslim whose family came to Germany from Kosovo.

After her morning training session, Bajramaj is sitting in a café in Potsdam outside Berlin. Her hair and makeup are perfect, and she is wearing heels. She says that her father didn't want his daughter to play football. "The dirty clothes, the trips to away matches, the boys on the sidelines -- it just wasn't appropriate in his eyes."

Bajramaj secretly trained with a local club, DJK/VfL Giesenkirchen, and later forged her father's signature to obtain her first player's ID. "No means no -- that's just the way it is with Muslim fathers," she says. Nevertheless, she had the courage to rebel, as she recalls. "I said: Wait a minute. Now I'm going to do something different. I'm going to play football. It was an extreme step. But when he found out what I'd been doing behind his back, my father was surprised to see what a good player I was."

Bajramaj was recruited into the national team at only 17. A midfielder with the women's club 1. FFC Frankfurt, she is one of the few professional athletes in women's football. She says that her religion and her faith were never an obstacle. "I consider myself a modern Muslim woman," says Bajramaj. "I pray regularly and I fast, but I also like to party now and again or drink a glass of champagne."

Bajramaj was appointed the integration ambassador of the German Football Association two months ago. She gives talks in schools about the character-building power of sports. Integration commissioner Maria Böhmer would like to see more Muslim women follow in Bajramaj's footsteps. For Böhmer, a member of Chancellor Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), it's also "a question of equal rights."

Ban on Gummi Bears

Under the government-funded program "Integration Through Sports," established in 1989, the Interior Ministry funnels €5.4 million ($7.8 million) a year to the German Olympic Sports Confederation, which then distributes the money to selected sports clubs that focus on integration. The money funds various programs in the clubs, such as the development of special points of contact for immigrants, outings and special training for coaches.

The Sports Dialogue Forum, a task force that aims to develop strategies to make sports clubs more attractive to immigrants, has been meeting regularly at the Interior Ministry in Berlin since 2008. The group, which includes politicians, academics and sports association officials, is one of 11 task forces organized under the National Integration Plan, or NIP. Two years ago, the Berlin group published a brochure titled "Intercultural Liberalization in Sports," which includes, for example, the suggestion that clubs should not include pork on the menu at club events. It also advises against the sale of alcoholic beverages and products containing gelatin, like gummi bears, in clubhouses. The suggestions are presented under the heading "Culturally Sensitive Catering."

It's difficult to say whether such measures reach Muslim women.

Strict Segregation

The classic German sports club, with group showers and coed youth groups, is no easy place for Muslim girls and women. For them, Islam is a framework within which their entire lives take place, so that clothing regulations and the gender segregation also apply in sports.

The two worlds often collide at swimming pools, where German women wear bikinis and Muslim women are clad in so-called "burqinis." But many cannot afford the head-to-toe outfits, which cost about €100. As a result, minor catastrophes are commonplace.

Two years ago, Muslim female bathers caused a stir in the city of Wolfsburg, when they showed up for a swimming class at a public pool wearing leggings and T-shirts. The pool supervisor asked the women to get out of the pool. One girl, who was allegedly forced to remove her shirt while still in the water, broke out in tears.

Dieter Kuhfeld, the official in charge of public swimming pools and athletic facilities in the Wolfsburg city government, calls it a regrettable incident. "But you should come to one of our outdoor pools in the summer and take a look at how much clothing some Muslim women are wearing," he says. The city has since put up signs banning leggings and T-shirts in public pools.

The most likely result is that fewer Muslim women will go swimming in public pools in the future.

Places of Conflict

Swimming pools, gymnasiums and health clubs are potential sources of conflict in a multicultural society -- and places where Muslim women often feel marginalized.

"Most Germans think it's completely normal when a woman wearing a headscarf works as a cleaning woman. But in sports they look at you as if you were an alien," says Emine Aydemir, a personal trainer in Cologne. She worked in various health clubs for years. Aydemir, who is of Turkish descent, wears a headscarf while exercising. Four years ago, tired of having to put up with stares and inappropriate comments, she opened Germany's first health club for Muslim women. The Hayat gym, in Cologne's Ehrenfeld neighborhood, features individual showers, separate changing booths and a small prayer room. Men are not admitted.

Small clubs catering to the needs of Muslim women are popping up all over Germany. But is this integration, when women segregate themselves?

Selling Integration

Dieter Schwulera was long a believer in the efficacy of integration models. He was an integration expert in the Interior Ministry of the northern state of Lower Saxony for 15 years. Now retired, he says: "There is a big difference between real life and the things politicians shoehorn into plans and strategies."

Schwulera is the chairman of the Borussia Hannover sports club. The club premises are in Vahrenheide, a neighborhood where half of residents are immigrants or are of foreign descent. Some 80 percent of players in the club's youth divisions are from immigrant families. Most of them play football.

Integration isn't something that can be mandated, Schwulera believes. "It happens automatically and incidentally -- if we're lucky," he says. Every year, the Borussia chairman visits elementary schools in the area to promote his club among Muslim parents. "Many immigrants are simply unfamiliar with the concept of mass sports in their native countries," says Schwulera.

To address this deficiency, he explains why application forms, dues and player ID cards are necessary. He also shows the parents that Borussia is a club that makes allowances for the needs of female Muslims. There are lockable changing rooms and individual shower stalls that are only accessible from one side in the clubhouse. "This takes away some of the parents' fears," says Schwulera.

There are now about 50 Muslim girls playing on Borussia Hannover's five women's and girls' teams.

Experts disagree over whether sport fosters integration at all. Sociologist Michael Mutz of Berlin's Free University has studied the issue of immigrants in sports for the last four years. He says that being a member of a club does not improve "the willingness to work hard in school," nor is there any evidence that it leads to a decline in the "propensity for violence." According to Mutz, "the hopes of politicians and the clubs are exaggerated and unrealistic in this regard."

Crossing a Boundary

Heather Cameron disagrees. A native Canadian, she is a professor of integration education. She has been living in the Neukölln neighborhood for 14 years and was a Berlin city champion in boxing. She founded a boxing club for women, Boxgirls, six years ago.

Cameron calls the club's gym, which is about the size of a large living room, her "laboratory." A poster of Rocky Balboa hangs on the wall, and 10 punching bags dangle from iron chains attached to the ceiling. Some of the girls and women who train at the Cameron's gym wear headscarves. And some of the women learned their first few fragments of German at the gym, even though they had been living in Germany for years. "When a Muslim woman prevails in the ring, she is crossing a boundary. It's something she can transfer to her life outside the gym," says Cameron.

Boxing is the kind of sport that Muslim parents are most likely to tolerate for their daughters -- for practical reasons. "It's different from other sports because the parents don't see boxing as a game or an entertainment sport. For them, boxing gives their daughters the chance to defend their honor. This is important to the fathers. And that's why they allow their daughters to train," says Cameron.

Sometimes, when the parents are overly concerned about her club, Cameron pays an immigrant family a visit. She explains that men are only admitted to the boxing gym by prior arrangement, that there are separate changing rooms, and that no one loses face at her gym.

Narrow-Minded World

Sara K., the clandestine athlete from Neukölln, could have used an environment like the one at Boxgirls. Instead, she was alone -- alone with the absurd contradiction of living in a world in which sports is considered completely normal, but not for her.

Sara eventually rebelled against the narrow-minded world of her parents, a world fraught with the difficulties life has in store for a young Muslim woman in Neukölln. Since then, however, that world has caught up with her again.

She wanted to study art, but her parents had different plans. They recently took her to Algeria, where she was married to her second cousin in an arranged marriage. He will be coming to Berlin soon. In the meantime, Sara works at a call center during the day and as a hotel maid in the evenings.

Perhaps sports will at least be a diversion for her in the future.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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