Shafaq News / In Iraq, women's freedom has been a topic of ongoing discussion and struggle. While progress has been made in some areas, such as access to education and employment, women still face significant challenges in achieving full equality.
Traditional and cultural norms often restrict women's participation in public life, including political and economic spheres. Despite legal protections for women's rights, implementation and enforcement remain inconsistent.
The exclusion of women from the Basra Marathon in southern Iraq, which took place on Friday, has sparked debate among those opposed to women's participation in the event and proponents for equality.
Basra's government said that this action is per "tribal customs," and that it "displays their regard for the woman's dignity and individuality." The local government issued a directive designating the marathon for men exclusively, stating that "the event was successfully carried out without incident."
Hassan Al-Najjar, Deputy Governor of Basra, told Shafaq News Agency, "The local government, Basra's community, and Islam also encourage sports in general, particularly swimming, shooting, and horseback riding. However, tribal customs and social traditions in Basra and Iraq differ from those in other nations, particularly in terms of respect for women's customs and traditions."
He added, "In Basra, there are many women's clubs for sports, including football, tennis, wrestling, and others, as well as teams for them, and even for people with special needs, but all activities take place indoors."
In the same context, Basra Provincial Council member Zahraa Abdulreda Al-Silmi considers the marathon as a “Western sport that contradicts the Eastern nature of women, including customs and traditions that must be adhered to."
"Eastern women differ from their Western counterparts in terms of customs, traditions, and the principles of Islamic law. Therefore, we refused to allow women to participate in this marathon because it contradicts our customs and traditions. Moreover, religious scholars objected due to the same reason."
She emphasizes that "we support any sport or topic that contributes to the development of the country, but first, we must adhere to the customs, traditions, and Islamic principles followed in the country."
Rasheed Al-Husseini, a professor at the religious seminary in Najaf, addressed a query regarding the permissibility of participation in mixed-gender sports or artistic festivals, stating, "It is not permissible if it contradicts modesty and hijab, and also if it is provocative, as is often the case."
Notably, in recent years, Iraq has witnessed the prohibition of several festivals and events under the pretext of violating religious teachings or tribal customs, especially as concerned authorities resort to threatening language.
In an announcement issued by the organizers of the Basra Marathon, it was stated, "Based on the directives of the Governor of Basra, Mohammed Taher Al-Tamimi, and to ensure the safety of everyone, the Basra Marathon, scheduled for Friday, will be exclusively for males." This decision followed threats from religious figures to take a different stance if female participation was not promptly canceled.
Saleh Al-Jizani, speaking on behalf of religious figures and Hussainiya processions, stated, "Upon hearing that there is a marathon for women in Basra, this is another calamity intended to lure Basra's women away from their chastity and honor into temptation under the pretext of sports and deviant openness."
He demanded the "cancellation of such a project as soon as possible, or else they will witness a different stance from us." Subsequently, the marathon organizers issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to preserving the values of their religion and social customs, stating that any deviation from these values and customs would not be tolerated.
However, the festival management later decided to restrict participation to males based on the directives of the Basra governor.
Opposing Iraqi entities critical of the authority of religious figures and their attempts to impose their control on society view the cancellation of female participation in the mentioned marathon as a negative indicator of the reality of women's sports in Iraq.
Asmaa Al-Hassan, President of the Amira Al-Basra Foundation for Culture and Media, remarked, "What happened is that a group of female activists and athletes wanted to participate in a marathon, which is the right of every citizen, male or female, and surely they would have participated in modest and decent attire."
"However, what occurred constitutes a violation of women's freedom and rights by excluding them from such participation. We indeed live in an Eastern society and a Muslim Arab state, with traditions and principles, but those women wanted nothing but to engage in sports."
She continued, "This is not the first instance in Basra; there was also a stir over a fashion show held in the governorate days ago, which rings alarm bells for women in Basra and the whole country Iraq." She called on women and women's rights organizations in Basra to express their opinions, freedoms, and ideas to confront the opposing party.
Women's rights violation
A female activist from Basra, who required anonymity, shared the same sentiment, affirming that "banning women from participating in marathons indicates that the country is following the path of nations that prohibit women from engaging in their hobbies, work, and activities."
"It is noticeable that Basra has begun to smother women and infringe upon their freedom." She noted that "the governorate is not sacrosanct; rather, it is multicultural, embracing various arts, hobbies, and sporting events. Therefore, it should experience more openness, not the opposite."
She warned that "restricting women's freedom may impact the attraction of sports delegations, especially female ones, to Basra, after witnessing this ban. It may also affect the tourism and economic aspects of the governorate in the future."
Women's sports in Iraq have a long history dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the numerous restrictions still in place, Iraqi women's teams and athletes have resumed participating in Arab championships in football, boxing, weightlifting, volleyball, and cycling.