While Israel gears up for its 42k marathon next week, the United Nations cancels Gaza marathon after Hamas rulers ban women from participating. The ban is the latest attempt by the Palestinian political party to impose its ideology inside the crowded Gaza Strip. Gaza women athletes accepted the news, noting that even before the ban societal pressures made training problematic.
Islam has no specific ban on women running. Green Prophet has reported extensively on difficulties faced by Islamic women athletes during last summer’s London Olympics. The majority of Gaza women wear hijab and many also wear abaya. Unlike Formula One racers “The Speed Sisters“, many Palestinian sportswomen tend to limit their exercise to indoor gyms. So why the ban? According to National Public Radio, Gaza’s Cabinet secretary, Abdul-Salam Siam, said women running in public violated Palestinian custom,”We don’t want any woman running uncovered.” Siam said only adult women were banned: girls could participate in the April 10 race. He wouldn’t say why Hamas didn’t ban women from the previous two races.
Over 800 runners had registered, including 266 Palestinian and 119 foreign women, according to UN spokesman Sami Mshasha. Organizers have always been careful to encourage modest dress: runners typically wore full-length running pants and long-sleeved shirts.
Gaza rights groups urged the UN to hold the marathon, arguing that Hamas has no right to discriminate against women.
Runner Nader Masri, who represented Palestine in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the 5k race, said Gaza’s conservative culture makes it impossible for women to run in public. “Who would allow his daughter or sister to run in the street?” Masri asked. “When a girl of 16 or 17 is running in the street, that’s not acceptable.”
Woroud Sawalha represented Palestine in the 2012 London Olympics in the 800 meters. “It means a lot for me that I am female and representing Palestine,” she told CNN’s Aiming For Gold.
The UN does not recognize a Palestinian state but the International Olympic Committee has permitted athletes to compete under a Palestinian flag since 1996.
“My dad told me that I’m a pretty woman now, and not a girl anymore, so I can’t run in the streets. It will be a headache for him because people will gossip,” said Noura Shukri, a high school student who ran in the 2011 and 2012 marathons.
Critics suggest that the cancellation shows a shift in political power. “The decision highlights the influence of the hard-liners in the Gaza government,” Gaza political analyst Mukheimar Abu Sada told NPR.
“We did not tell UN Relief and Works Agency to cancel the marathon and we haven’t prevented it, but we laid down some conditions: We don’t want women and men mixing in the same place,” Abdessalam Siyyam, cabinet secretary of the Hamas government, told AFP.
The race would have been the third annual UNRWA Gaza Marathon, raising funds for the agency’s summer program for Gazan children. The news comes days before the Tel Aviv Gillette Marathon, Israel’s largest sporting event held on held on March 15, attracting over 35,000 runners.
Update: Due to a heat wave the Tel Aviv marathon will be postponed by a week.
Image of running woman from Shutterstock