Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanese Women in Sports: Overcoming Disparities and Striving for Recognition

Lebanese Women in Sports face gender biases and societal barriers. Yet, they are determined to break through and pursue their dreams fearlessly.

Lebanese Women in Sports
Lebanese athlete Ghereta Tasalakian celebrates after winning women’s 400m final heat at the 18th Arab Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. Mohamed Farag / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Dana Hourany

In recent years, the sports scene in Lebanon has witnessed a revolution at its core, with women making remarkable strides, shattering stereotypes, and breaking social taboos.

From football, basketball to track and field and weightlifting, Lebanese sports have long been dominated by men before women stepped in to become powerful role models for the upcoming generations of girls nationwide.

Despite the many setbacks, notably Lebanon’s economic collapse, Mahassen Hala Fattouh created history in 2021 when she was selected to represent Lebanon as a weightlifter at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and held in 2021 instead.

This wouldn’t be the first time Fattouh made the limelight. At the XVIII Mediterranean Games in Tarragona, Spain, Fattouh earned an international medal for women’s weightlifting in 2018. Her winning streak continued a year later when she won three gold medals at the Arab Championship in Amman, Jordan, becoming the first female Arab Champion from Lebanon in 2019.

Female athletes in Lebanon’s extremely competitive sports scene match their male counterparts step by step in passion and intensity, but they continue to be overlooked and underappreciated. Despite their unwavering commitment to sports, these remarkable sportswomen continue to grapple with numerous obstacles, including deep-rooted gender biases and societal expectations. However, a growing number of tenacious athletes are breaking through these barriers, sending a resounding message that dreams should be pursued fearlessly.

The lesser-known Olympic stars

Although basketball and football are the more popular sports in Lebanon, weightlifting has held a distinct allure for athletes since the middle of the 20th century. This dedication to physical fitness was further evidenced when Lebanon sent a delegation to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, eventually leading to the formation of the country’s Olympic committee in 1947.

Since then, they have participated actively in international events like the Summer and Winter Olympics and have also hosted a number of contests, including the Pan-Arab Games in 1997 and the Asian Cup in 2000.

Despite its efforts, Lebanon has not managed to win an Olympic gold medal. However, the Greco-Roman wrestling and weightlifting events saw Lebanese athletes Zakaria Chihab, Mohamed Traboulsi, Hassan Bchara, and Khalil Taha earn four medals—two bronze and two silver.

In 2021, despite a deepening economic crisis and the aftermath of the devastating 2020 Beirut port explosion, a number of female athletes from Lebanon still took part in the Tokyo Olympics with little attention and recognition.

Ray Bassil, a UNDP youth and gender Goodwill Ambassador and Lebanese trap shooter, stood out as the first Arab woman to compete in two Olympic Games and earned three consecutive World Cup medals in trap shooting.

Similarly, Gabriella Douaihy made history as a 22-year-old Lebanese swimmer. This was her second time participating in the Olympic Games, having competed first in the women’s 400 meter freestyle event at the 2016 Rio Summer Games.

As the highly anticipated 2024 Paris Olympics draw near, a fresh wave of aspiring athletes is gearing up to make their mark on the world stage. Among these rising stars shines Aziza Sbaity, a 31-year-old track and field standout who was the only Lebanese to win a gold in the 200m race and added silver to her haul for the 100m event at the 2023 Arab Athletics Championships.

“To make it to the Olympics is definitely one of my dreams at the moment, and I am working really hard to achieve it,” Sbaity told Fanack.

Racism and discrimination

Growing up, Sbaity experienced life in two distinctly different countries, she told Fanack. Born to a Lebanese father and a Liberian mother, she spent the majority of her childhood on the western coast of Africa. At the age of 11, Sbaity’s family relocated to Lebanon, where she completed her education.

She says that she has always been a sports fanatic who loves the outdoors. Because of all the physical activity, she frequently suffered from bruises and scratches. She didn’t learn about track and field until she enrolled in the International School of Choueifat. When given the opportunity to participate in race events, she was amazed by how swiftly her body could move.

“I was bullied for having a different skin color when I was little. Some kids were cruel, and as a child, I often heard harsh racial slurs that had no place being directed at anyone,” she told Fanack.

However, Sbaity emphasized that she managed to overcome that aspect of her past, and her sport’s passion became the driving force behind her unwavering determination to attain greatness.

“I was lucky to have a supportive circle of family and friends that did not let me back down and kept me going,” Sbaity said.

Dark-skinned individuals, especially women, have long battled discrimination in Lebanon and the Arab world. The Kafala system, which organizes the work of migrant workers, who mostly hail from Africa and Southeast Asia has deprived these laborers of their rights and left them vulnerable to abuse without proper legal protection. Consequently, the perception that dark-skinned people are merely “servants” and can be mistreated persists throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

“Once, upon arriving at Beirut airport, a security guard ridiculed me, asked me to join the domestic workers line, and claimed that I had stolen my Lebanese passport.”

Going beyond obstacles

Sbaity’s accomplishments, such as her victory at the Arab Athletics Championship, demonstrate her tenacity in the face of such setbacks. The athlete has noticed a worrying trend, though, which is a decline in the proportion of women competing in track and field events in Lebanon. Despite the fact that the causes of this reduction are yet unknown, Sbaity suggests that social constraints may be preventing women and girls from fully embracing sports.

“I think women get to an age where they feel like, ‘Why am I doing all of this?'” Sbaity expressed. “The lack of developmental projects and investments in sports in Lebanon make it difficult for women to dedicate their time and effort to a passion that barely pays them a fraction of what they need.”

Consequently, numerous women may feel compelled to abandon their sports career and instead prioritize pursuing a university education, embarking on a career, or getting married – overlooking the possibility of balancing both or avoiding the need to choose.

“I have also been told that I should focus on starting a family and having kids, but I’m lucky to have a support system that is proud of what I’m doing and does not impose anything,” the athlete noted. “Nevertheless, other women may not be as fortunate and could be pressured to follow the conventional path instead.”

Rebecca Akl, captain of the Lebanese National Basketball team, echoed Sbaity’s sentiments, recounting her own challenges while growing up. Akl revealed that she was told that basketball was for men and that pursuing the sport would hinder her “femininity” and not lead to a lasting career.

“The women’s team has always had to take more significant steps than the men’s team because there’s less attention, care, and investment given to us by the Lebanese Basketball Federation,” Akl told Fanack. “Moreover, 99 percent of women in basketball have full-time jobs, and some even take care of their children. Can you imagine the sacrifices that are not accounted for?”

In addition to her full-time basketball career, where she trains almost every day for multiple hours, Akl runs a basketball academy with her siblings called “Brainers Hawks” where she trains younger girls enthusiastic about the sport.

Sbaity and Akl both agree that women face invisible and underestimated difficulties, such as menstrual cycles, which may interfere with their training. Such challenges are exacerbated by the fact that there is limited revenue and financial support in their respective fields, leaving male athletes with a higher chance of longevity in the game and receiving better training opportunities.

Well-deserved attention

The men’s national basketball team of Lebanon made headlines in 2022 by winning the FIBA Asia Cup while the women’s team cemented their place among the top teams in Asia by defeating Chinese Taipei in January. Similarly, the women’s national under-16 football team soared to victory, claiming the West Asian Cup after defeating Jordan (2-0) in January.

“Some may consider men more entertaining to watch, and media outlets flock to their events, enticing sponsors to invest in their teams,” Akl expressed. “However, the same is not true for women, who barely receive any attention.”

The men’s and women’s teams have a stark pay gap, with the former receiving at least twice as much as the latter, according to Akl.

Her account of her team’s experience after news of their triumph over the Chinese team spread also showed the transformational effect of recognition in the world of women’s sports. The sudden upsurge in interest not only brightened the team’s spirits but also inspired them to keep working toward future triumphs, demonstrating that recognition and encouragement may act as catalysts for success in women’s sports despite the already-existing inequalities.

“You get addicted to this feeling and want to keep scoring victories so that people keep sending you these encouraging messages,” Akl said.

Meanwhile, Sbaity highlights the challenges faced by her lesser-known sport, which might dissuade younger generations of women from joining unless proper developmental plans are implemented.

“Long hours of training and sacrifices are involved. One loses much in terms of their social life, so something has got to give,” Sbaity explained.

Both athletes recognize that they frequently feel the need to work more than their male colleagues, despite their unwavering passion for and love of their individual sports. However, they hope to usher in a new age of Lebanese women’s prominence in athletics by acting as role models for younger generations of girls.

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