As Clock Winds Down, “Turf War” Remains Stagnant

The ringing in of a new year often marks a time for change and progress to occur on both small and large scales. It is typically a time when resolutions are set, and steps are taken toward the betterment of oneself and others. For FIFA, the governing body of soccer, however, its 2015 resolutions don’t appear to include the betterment of its female players participating in this summer’s World Cup.

With just five months left until kickoff, the troubled landscape—both physical and political—of the upcoming tournament in Canada remains virtually unchanged. Since March 2013, some of the biggest names in women’s soccer, including America’s Abby Wambach, Spain’s Veronica Boquete, and Germany’s Nadine Angerer, have spoken out against FIFA’s implementation of artificial playing surfaces for the sport’s biggest tournament. In October, a lawsuit was filed by the players and a full-on “turf war” was waged against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association under the grounds of gender discrimination.

The players’ case is highlighted by the fact that all 26 previous World Cups, including both the women’s and men’s tournaments, have been played on grass. Also, the upcoming men’s World Cups in Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, respectively, will be played on grass surfaces.

Besides these details, the female soccer stars have posited that a turf playing surface will change the way the game is traditionally played, increase the risk of injury, and diminish their value as players in front of an international audience. The change from turf to grass in the tournament’s six stadiums would cost FIFA roughly between $3 and $6 million, which is just a fraction of the organization’s exorbitant yearly earnings.

Since the lawsuit was filed in October, FIFA and the C.S.A. have gone to great extremes to freeze the players’ efforts for change. Whether ignoring mediation efforts, refusing to address the situation as a gender issue, or presenting reprisals for players involved in the lawsuit, soccer’s head honchos are not-so-stealthily attempting to thwart the mission of their female representatives.

When asked by reporters recently if the Canadian Soccer Association has considered any logistical data regarding the switch from turf to grass, C.S.A. president Victor Montagliani’s response was a telling indication about where the organization stands on the issue.

Montagliani answered, “There has been no need.”

While the switch from turf to grass is still possible, each passing day makes it less probable for the change to occur in-time for the summer tournament. Unless the soccer higher-ups have a change of heart and decide to properly mediate with the female players about their requests, an upcoming trial will be imminent and could cause the hourglass to run out on the case.

Juliet Macur of the New York Times reported in December, however, that the desired pitch-changes could take less time than people think.

Macur stated, “Turf experts say they could start growing new sod by April or May and install it in time for the World Cup opener in June.”

Macur also reported that the use of existing sod could reduce the preparation time to just two or three weeks before the tournament, and further, if pre-grown grass is transported on movable trays, it could be implanted onto the fields just before kickoff.

Despite the plausibility of these options, the timeliness of the case is still one of the foremost concerns of the players, especially due to the inaction of FIFA and the C.S.A. regarding the lawsuit.

Yet, a small victory was recently won for the women’s World Cup participants, when the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruled in mid-December that FIFA and the C.S.A. had three weeks to respond to an amended suit involving allegations of reprisals against the players. While the amendment does not guarantee action in favor of the players, it forces the governing bodies to make some sort of timely acknowledgment to the case.

As the case proceeds into 2015, women’s soccer’s elite will surely be met with disregard and challenges from soccer’s governing bodies, as well as backward-thinking members of the media.

Case in point: Sports columnist Chris Rattue from the New Zealand Herald recently ranted about the turf war with an ad hominem piece attacking female athletes for their inferior genes. Rattue trivialized the turf conflict at hand by reducing it to an unnecessary issue created by bitter women who have an ax to grind with men.

Rattue said, “There is also a simmering resentment in women’s sport about its treatment which sometimes manifests itself in wanting to prove it is the equal of men. Genetics makes this impossible.”

The subjective and opinionated nature of Rattue’s attacking claims continued when he stated, “As with almost all team sport, top-level women’s football will never be as good to watch as top-level men’s football as we know it. Men are stronger and more dynamic. Call me a sexist pig, but the A-League – which isn’t exactly world class – is better to watch than any women’s football I’ve seen.”

Kate Fagan of espnW disputed Rattue’s claims in a poignant and fact-focused piece, unlike that of the self-proclaimed “sexist pig.”

Rattue’s comments, coupled with the inaction of FIFA and the C.S.A., draw attention to issues beyond the World Cup that loom heavily over women’s sports today. Issues of sexism and inequality, dogmatism and bigotry, still pervade through the 21st century sports landscape for female athletes.

While the start of a new year typically signifies a time when improvement and progress are dominant forces within a society, that is not the case for today’s most-talented women’s soccer players, who find themselves stymied by sexism and disregard. At the mercy of old-world thinkers and the rulings of the court, they are pitted against both time and obstinate philosophies in their collective quest for change.

And though the sand keeps moving through the hourglass, it doesn’t always mean progress is being made.

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Middle Eastern Women Face Ongoing Battle for Sports Rights

For Middle Eastern women, conflicts exist far beyond the political and military landscapes in the turmoil-laden region. Amid constant battles for fundamental human rights lie the issues of women’s rights to play sports and attend sporting events. But, because of the dominating presence of male authorities in Middle Eastern nations, women are often overmatched, and even unarmed, in the battle for sports rights.

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics (Courtesy of Buzzfeed).

Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics. (Courtesy of Buzzfeed)

In Saudi Arabia, women and their participation in sports are largely left by the wayside, and often neglected altogether. In September, Saudi Arabian government officials denied female athletes the right to compete at the Asian Games, after allowing two of their women to compete in the 2012 London Olympics -– Sarah Attar in track and field and Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo -– for the first time in the country’s history.

Although neither woman met the qualifying standards set by the International Olympic Committee, they gained entry because of the IOC’s “universality” clause that permits athletes with special circumstances to compete “for reasons of equality.” While at the Olympic Games, however, both women had to wear traditional Saudi clothing and be under the constant guardianship of men.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee, justified his country’s decision to omit Saudi female athletes from this year’s Asian Games by saying “they were not yet competitive enough.” The kingdom’s justification, however, fails to acknowledge its age-old rejection of women’s rights, especially those of the sporting variety.

While al-Mishal added that Saudi Arabia promises to permit female athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he says their participation will be reduced to equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery -– as dictated by the Quran.

Despite the strides Saudi Arabian officials are promising to make for female athletes in 2016, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson isn’t yet sold on the government’s efforts.

Whitson said, “Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over -– Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men.”

Saudi Arabia's Wujdan Shahrkhani (Courtesy of feministing.com).

Saudi Arabia’s Wujdan Shahrkhani. (Courtesy of feministing.com)

However, it will take more than just the entry of Saudi Arabian women into the 2016 Olympics to reverse the trend of gender discrimination in the tumultuous Middle Eastern nation.

The first step is to lift the ban on women’s sports in Saudi Arabian public schools. With the absence of physical education and female sports teams in the country’s schools and universities, there aren’t any easily accessible feeder outlets available for women’s competition on the international level.

In addition, private training facilities are in short supply for Saudi women, and are usually limited to the country’s upper echelon. Plus, without the presence of females in Saudi Arabia’s sporting federations, aside from Arwa Mutabagani in the Equestrian Federation, Saudi women are lacking a voice in the sports world.

Apart from the ongoing battle for rights to play sports, Saudi women have long since struggled for rights to attend sporting events. Although plans to build separate sections for women in Saudi Arabian stadia have been in the works for years, they have been fervently quelled by conservative government officials, who wish to keep men and women apart in social settings like sporting events.

According to BBC News, a brave Saudi female soccer fan caused a social media uproar when she attended a match between Saudi Arabia’s team Al Hilal and the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) Al Ain in October. Even though the match was played in the UAE, which allows females to attend sporting events, the Saudi woman’s act of defiance against her motherland’s laws was not well-received amongst Saudi men.

A video posted to YouTube captures the female soccer fan in attendance, and displays over 900 angry comments from heated Saudi Arabians.

One reads, “Women aren’t interested in football, so why go to a stadium to watch a live match.”

Another says, “Does this woman not have a man? Her place is in the house.”

This incident reflects a similar situation in Iran, which, like Saudi Arabia, prevents the entry of women into sports stadia.

Also in October, 25-year-old British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami was sentenced to one year in prison after having been arrested in June while attending a volleyball match between Iran and Italy. Ghavami subsequently underwent a hunger strike while incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison.

According to an article in the New York Times, “she was protesting against a new rule barring women from attending men’s volleyball matches.”

While human rights activists have rallied for Ghavami’s release from jail for simply attending a volleyball match, Iran’s judiciary officials are rejecting the notion that her case is a sports issue.

Ghavami was charged with dispersing anti-Iran propaganda during the match, along with several other female protestors. According to her lawyer, however, “she will be retried.”

However, good news finally came for Ghavami and other Iranian female sports fans. The Huffington Post recently reported that the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) threatened to strip Iran of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s world volleyball championship if it continues banning the attendance of women from matches.

Although the recent action of the FIVB is a step in the right direction for Middle Eastern women, the battle for sports rights will be ongoing for years to come.

According to Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, achieving progress in a country that is firmly set in its conservative cultural and religious ways involves help from outsiders, as well as the passing of time.

“There are a lot of serious reformists who want to see change but it takes a lot of time, months and years, to get the smallest changes,” Coogle told Reuters.

In the meantime, Middle Eastern women are hoping that the achievement of sports rights will someday be a peaceful endeavor. But, only time will tell if it will prove to be the fight of their lives.

On Uneven Playing Field, Chand Stands Steady

Champion sprinter Dutee Chand is no stranger to life’s disproportions. The 18-year-old daughter of Indian weavers knows what it’s like to survive on eight dollars a week, live in a two-room mud hut with no toilet, and encounter gender discrimination and scrutiny regarding her appearance and performance as an elite female athlete.

Dutee Chand. (Courtesy of Vipin Chandran)

Dutee Chand. (Courtesy of Vipin Chandran)

That’s why the Indian track star, who fell in love running on the banks of the Brahmani River in India at age four, was not intimidated or defeated when a career and life-altering decision was announced in mid-July.

Following Chand’s two gold-medal victories at the Asian Junior Athletics Championship in Tapei, an unknown competitor requested for the muscular champion to undergo testing for what he or she believed to be an unfair competitive advantage. In response, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), in compliance with the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and theInternational Olympic Committee (IOC), tested Chand for hyperandrogenism, a condition involving the production of high levels of testosterone. Chand’s positive results scratched her from competition at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the end of the summer, and also banned her altogether from future races against women.

Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) uses the measurement of testosterone levels as the distinguishing factor between male and female athletes, track’s governing bodies have also followed suit with these methods of classification.

Despite the clout that the IOC possesses in the world of athletics, flaws within their gender classification system have been repeatedly identified. Although testosterone is known to help muscles grow and aid in the body’s recovery after workouts, research shows that “there is no clear scientific evidence proving that a high level of testosterone is a significant determinant in female sports.”

According to Kate Fagan of espnW, the IOC’s desire to pinpoint testosterone as the source of athletic success furthers the divide between male and female athletes.

Fagan says, “Out of the thousands of genetic variants that athletes possess, the IOC has singled out just one for regulation, and it affects only female athletes.”

The playing field for men and women in the testosterone case is anything but level. While males are also tested for testosterone, problems only emerge when unnatural drugs that boost the hormone are discovered. For women, however, the natural production of testosterone is enough to raise red flags.

Fagan believes the IOC’s testosterone policy is a form of gender profiling, as well as a concerted effort to thwart the unconventionalities of female athletics today. Fagan says, “In some very obvious ways, this policy amounts to a witch hunt, a persecution of women who do not fit our traditional Western notion of femininity.”

Chand has refused to comply with expected norms, however.

Amid the decision to ban her from competition, Chand was faced with options that would lower her testosterone to the IOC’s appropriate level for females, and thus, permit her reentry to the competitive stage. She was told to either take drugs to suppress the testosterone production within her body or undergo surgery to control it.

Chand has been urged by coaches and family alike to undergo unnatural physical alterations for the sake of competition. These urgings result from the comparison of Chand’s situation to that of Caster Semenya; South Africa’s 2009 800-meter world champion who was banned from competition for gender discrepancies, but was later reinstated following testing and treatment.

Chand, however, isn’t budging.

“I feel that it’s wrong to have to change your body for sport participation,” Chand said in a New York Times article. “I’m not changing for anyone.”

Among those who have attempted to persuade Chand in the direction of compliance is a voice of reason. Dr. Payoshni Mitra, a research consultant on gender and issues within athletics, has worked directly with Chand to provide guidance for her situation and caution against unnatural remedies.

Mitra says, “The current policy that requires women athletes with hyperandrogenism to undergo therapy or surgery if they want to compete again is encouraging genital mutilation in an institutionalized way.”

With this advice, as well as her own personal convictions, Chand is not only electing to forgo the suggested therapies, but she is also refusing to hang up her spikes without a fight.

Chand filed an appeal in September with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland and challenged the IAAF’s standards for female participation in track events. The case is expected to take months to produce a verdict about Chand’s future in track.

Nonetheless, Chand is not fighting alone. According to the New Indian Express, the SAI is in her corner, and has written to the Ministry of Sports on her behalf. They are currently in search of permission to go before the IAAF to argue her case.

Chand is optimistic that she will begin competing again by springtime.

“I can come back. Though I have to wait for another four years for the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games, I am thinking positive. I want to run again,” Chand told the New Indian Express.

Despite the distress that Chand’s situation has brought upon her, she is most disappointed that the barring of her participation has gone against the mores of what originally attracted her to athletics.

“When girls play a sport, they are treated equally, so society becomes more equal,” Chand told theNew York Times. “I really liked that.”

Chand’s search for equality, both on and off the track at the elite level, has involved more hurdles than she could have imagined during her younger days along the Brahmani River. But, for this unmovable champion, a toughness and resolve persist, along with a belief that who we are in our purest forms supersedes what we appear to be in the eyes of others. For a female like Chand, whose femininity is constantly in question, there is nothing more exemplary of womanly strength and beauty.