Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Handball's gentler side

By Inas Mazhar

A first-time seminar on women and handball, which included seven guest speakers from four continents, said that the sport and the gender today mix very well but could develop even more. Inaugurating the meeting, Aslaug Haga, the Norwegian minister for sport and culture, spoke about the history of women in Norway, in sports as well as other fields in the past 20 years, the participation of women in the parliament and the future of women in Norway as decision-makers.

International Handball Federation (IHF) President Erwin Lanc said the IHF has, in step with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), been striving for stronger women's representation for years, not only in the bodies of the world federation but also in the continents and the member federations and, in fact, right down to club level.

"Even if we have partially succeeded in integrating women more closely into positions of responsibility, there is still a big step to be made and a long way to go until women are accorded equal status in all areas of our sport," Lanc said. He added that the seminar will play a part in bringing us a bit closer to this goal.

Carin Green, IHF council member, said the IHF strives to promote women in all spheres and at all levels of the sport. "In the last 20 years women's handball has grown explosively and women today play a very high standard of handball," Green said. "Off court, progress for women as coaches, referees and officials has not been as rapid," she added.

At the seminar, Sheila Agonzibwa, president of the Uganda Amateur Handball Association, and Ndi Onyiuke, of the Nigerian Handball Association, spoke about the future for women in African handball. They said the same climatic and physical conditions which have produced excellent African handball men apparently cannot produce the same for women. "There are particular problems which affect African women in handball. At all levels of handball in Africa, women are less involved than men," Agonzibwa said.

Fierce competition at the World Women Handball Championship

"The most important problem for African women in handball is culture, such as marriage followed by pregnancies, tribal and regional taboos, close contact with men which can be morally dangerous, low educational standards, fear of building muscles or looking like a tomboy which is not the desired lady-like image. Religion can be yet another deterrent, especially for Muslims," she said.

"Female involvement in sports administration and sporting activities was like a taboo," Onyiuke said. "The belief that they were merely to participate as spectators and cheer the menfolk to victory was further buttressed by the statement of the founder of the Olympic Games, Baron Pierre De Cubertin, in his definition of the Games: the solemn and periodic exaltation of athleticism, internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, arts for its setting and female applause as a reward for good performance."

"As the world developed, some of the negative views against womankind changed and their potentials to compete favourably with their male counterparts in all walks of life were discovered. Gradually, women were let in on some of the functions reserved solely for men," she said.

According to Agonzibwa, education can assist with culture and religion "but this will take time. Action must be taken to get all schools, clubs and institutions to promote handball for women. In the poorer African countries financial and technical assistance is a must. Coaches and referees on a permanent basis are required but these need external financing".

"The culture of charity is somewhat different in Africa from the West," Agonzibwa said. "Externally generated funds can be administered by dedicated women. Exchange programmes between schools and clubs should be introduced, ideally between the richer, more experienced countries and African states. This will facilitate the transfer of technical skills, advice and financial assistance to those in need. With the Internet and e-mail we could have a women handball super highway."

On the IOC's aims and strategies to promote women in sport, Gunilla Lindberg, secretary-general of the Swedish Olympic Committee, said the coming year will be a very special landmark in the history of the Olympic movement, pointing to the second world congress of women and sport which will be organised by the IOC in Paris in March 2000. The French capital witnessed the first participation of women in the Olympic Games in 1900.

Lindberg said in the Olympic Summer Games in Sydney 2000, women participants will make up 43 per cent of the total number of athletes. She added that in Sydney all sports but three -- baseball, boxing and wrestling -- will have women. "The IOC has worked very hard to create better opportunities for access to sport for women all over the world. It is a very challenging issue and we have to take into consideration different cultures, societies and religions," Lindberg said.

The IHF's Green spoke on how the IHF can involve more women in handball as leaders at the international level. "If we want more women in our organisation we have to draw up aims and strategies for the future, promoting women to take leadership in our sport," Green said. I am convinced that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose if men and women share power and leadership. Women in leading positions will lend new attitudes to the role of the leader," she added.

Iranian Mandana Rassouli spoke about sports and handball for women in Islamic countries. "Approaching the third millennium the issue of women and sport in society is a particular current topic of debate in every country of the world," Rassouli said. "Therefore, the role of physical activity should be highlighted for women specifically, and it should be noted that it is not a mere priority among many issues of women's concern, but it is a vital one. For some women, sport became a means to exercise their energy, creativity and potentials. Through the bodily practice of sport, some women have come to reclaim and re-experience themselves in what has been taken away," she said.

"There are cultural obstacles to the participation of women in sports in Islamic countries as there have been and there are in all societies," Rassouli said, putting it down to current Western patterns which are in contradiction with Islamic criteria and Muslim beliefs. Rassouli said that 750 million Muslim women have been hindered from active participation in international competitions. The best evidence of this claim, she added, was the absence of nearly 30 Muslim countries in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

The seminar did not ignore the medical aspects for women handballers and heard Petra Platen from Germany speaking on the issue. On a computer projector, Platen showed the kinds of injuries female handball players suffer and the higher risk of injuries in males compared to females. "In females, however, we see a high risk of injuries at lower extremities, especially at the knees and ankles," Platen said. "Although handball is a contact sport, we see only very few breast injuries and, if they occur, they are mainly minor contusions." As a consequence of the relatively high risk to lower extremity, Platen said, female players should train and stabilise the relevant muscle groups. She also pointed out ailments which pertain specifically to female athletes; such as eating disorders, menstrual cycle disturbances and osteoporosis. "The positive effects of regular physical activity for the health of the female are certain," she said. "This is also true of handball. We need, however, more specific investigations in order to get better insight into factors influencing performance and into factors influencing the health of the female player."

On women, media and sports, this writer, representing Egypt at the seminar, explained how these three subjects have been with us for centuries "yet all three had, until just recently, lived independently of each other. Today, they work in tandem. Women play all sorts of professional sports and the media, in the form of the press, TV and radio, cover them. The coverage, of course, includes not just the play-by-play but private lives off the field as well. Sometimes the focus is way out of focus, centring much more on the personality and the looks rather than the talent. In both cases, hundreds, if not thousands, of women athletes have become stars and big money-earners equal to men and in many cases, far greater," she said.

"This is not so everywhere in the world. In many regions of the Third World, women are forced to cope with antiquated stereotypes of what women should and must be. It can be hard for women in this part of the world to be what they want to be. For sportswomen, this can be even more of a stigma for they do what the taboos say they shouldn't. It is a daily struggle for many of our sportswomen who must not only compete in the challenges of sport but of life on a daily basis. The media are helping in this constant struggle and have, as a case in point, accepted dozens of female reporters into their fold. But the ultimate goal -- for women to exercise not only their body but also their freedom -- is still far off."

A second seminar is expected to be held during the 2001 world women handball championship in Italy to evaluate the results of work done the preceding two years.

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