Three weeks before the Arab Games in Doha, Qatari sports officials called Nada Mohammed Wafa to tell her she would be competing in the Middle East’s biggest sporting event.
Surprised — and a bit scared — the 17-year-old swimmer replied: “Oh wow! Sure!”
Wafa, who had only competed in school-level events until then, trained hard to make up for the short time she had before making history by becoming the first woman on Qatar’s national swim team.
“It’s a good feeling, but it’s also very lonely,” Wafa said. “It’s just me, myself and I.”
Wafa may be Qatar’s lone female swimmer, but she is part of a group of emerging athletes in the conservative Muslim country that hopes to send women to the Olympics for the first time in London next year.
And if Wafa’s phone rings in five months or somebody confirms her name is on the list, she would be delighted to go and compete.
“I’d be over the moon,” she said.
Along with Saudi Arabia and Brunei, Qatar has never sent female athletes to the Olympics. Last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) urged the three countries to end the practice of sending all-male teams to the Games, hoping that naming and shaming would do more for female athletes than banning their nations from the Olympics.
While Saudi Arabia’s plans to send women to the London Games remain wrapped in secrecy, Qatar is feverishly working to escape the stigma that comes with failing to include women.
Over the past decade, the tiny but rich Gulf country has been targeting sports as a vehicle to showcase its global aspirations. Last year, it became the first Arab country to win the right to host the World Cup in 2022, and Qatar’s bid for the 2020 Olympics adds the pressure to include women on the teams in London.
Qatar Olympic Committee president Sheik Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said female athletes have been competing in international tournaments for the past three years, including last year’s Youth Olympics in Singapore.
The only reason women were not included for the 2008 Beijing Games is because they didn’t qualify in any sport, Sheik Saoud said. He added that Qatar is talking to the IOC about sending female athletes to the Games next year on wild-card invitations.
“That’s the thing with the Olympics. They can’t go if they don’t qualify,” Sheik Saoud said. “It’s not about us being unwilling to send women to the tournament, but it takes time to prepare athletes to compete on the international level.”
It also takes time to change mindsets in a deeply conservative society. Qatar follows the Wahhabi branch of Islam, a strict version that predominates in Saudi Arabia.
There are no written laws in Qatar — or Saudi Arabia — that ban and restrict women from participating in sports. Rather, the stigma of female athletes is rooted in conservative traditions and religious views that hold giving freedom of movement to women would make them vulnerable to sins.
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where women are still banned from driving, much has changed in Qatar since the country began an ambitious process of opening up to the world, largely through hosting high-profile sporting events in tennis, soccer, and track and field.
However, getting women to compete in Qatar is quite a different thing than sending them to compete abroad.
“It’s unusual in this culture,” said Hana al-Badr, a 20-year-old handball player who has seen the change since she joined Qatar’s first female handball team four years ago. “My teachers and my friends in school used to look at me and say: ‘You are a girl and you are traveling to play outside? How can your family let you?’ But now it’s become normal.”