Inspired by the “Right to Movement” initiative of the yearly Palestine Marathon, Photographer Lasse Bak Mejlvang has travelled to Palestine and captured the portraits of ten young women fighting for their rights of exercising sports.
We are at the West Bank in Palestine. An area that’s under a lot of pressure from both the Israeli occupation followed by strong religious and traditional powers in society. A Power that has marked itself with solid footprints and spread out in society in a way that makes it difficult for the people to develop along side the rest of the world. This especially goes for the women.
Something as straightforward as sports and exercise have been strictly prohibited for women in several areas. It wasn’t until 1970 that the organization YMCA established the first female basketball team, and it wasn’t up until 2003, that Palestine got its own national football team for women. Nevertheless, due to the norms of society, it is still unacceptable for women to run in public streets and parks.
But things are starting to advance in the Middle East these days, and Palestine is no exception. This is also evident in the latest campaign from Nike, which deals with this exact issue of the right for women to practice their sport and exercise. Furthermore, Nike has made a specially designed hijab that clearly indicates that they now focus on the Arabian Market.
At the West Bank in Palestine the development is slow, but there is hope for the women. Small changes are starting to pop up in the area and women practicing sports in their headgear are starting to be more accepted. The support for female sports clubs are ascending. The yearly Palestine Marathon, which was conducted for the fifth time this year, has taken part in bringing awareness to women’s rights. The executive slogan of the marathon, “Right to Movement”, sends a powerful message to the Israeli occupational force, but also bears an undertone of pointing an accusing finger at the Palestinians own society. For this particular marathon it is accepted that everybody runs, no matter how religious or old-fashioned the family or the surrounding society may be.
We have met ten women who share their fight for the right to practice their sport and exercise.
Niveen Klaib, age 32, Bethlehem, plays football
»Football as a sport has develop a lot here in Palestine. When I started 15 years ago, it was only little girls who played football. When I started to play on a serious level, there was a huge pressure on my family from neighbors and rest of society. But after the establishment of the female national football team, it helped. Suddenly we played against other nations and was also on TV. After that it somehow became more acceptable.«
Hadeel Bader, age 21, Hebron, runner
»I live in a very religious area in Hebron. My family won’t accept the fact that I run in the streets on a daily basis. So I don’t. I can walk, but I can’t run in public. That is why I now, for two successive years has participated in the Palestinian Marathon. This event puts a spotlight on the right to move freely in the occupied areas, and in that way my family accepts the fact that I participate.
Ruba Sarhann, age 28, Beit Jala, plays tennis
»Tennis is a sport that has had a hard time breaking through in our society. I think it originates in the images we see on television where women often play in very short skirts and undershirt-like tops. It took a long time for people to realize that you can actually play tennis in a hijab with long pants and sleeves.«
Reem Abu Tair, age 18, Jerusalem, works out
»I have been working out for a year. It started with YouTube, and at first I just worked out privately in my room. I did different exercises that I found online. In the beginning I kept it as a secret because I was afraid of how people would react. After half a year I started going to the University, here it was okay for me to use the gym. So now I work out four time a week. I can see it on my body and feel it on my energy.«
Nour Abu Tair, age 18, Bethlehem, plays football
»I’ve played football on a serious level for about four years now. Before that, I played as a little girl with the boys in the streets of Bethlehem. Now that I’ve grown up and plays two times a week, my family is kind of torn. My dad is fine with it, but my uncle does not accept it.«
Amal Taha, age 24, Bethlehem, plays volleyball
»Both my self and society, have changed over time. Concurrently with the fact that more and more women play sports and show themselves in sports clothing publicly, oneself get more convinced that it is okay, and also makes you care less about what others think. Some places people still stares – especially the men. Besides that we are challenged by the same problems as women in other countries, namely that the government supports the male teams to a greater extent. But we will continue and still meet up two times a week to play volleyball.«
Dina Qaraqe, age 19, Bethlehem, swimmer
»I’ve been swimming for as long as I remember. When I was young it was acceptable for me to swim in shorts. But after I turned 16 and my religion says that I have to wear a hijab, it also meant that I had to swim in long pants and sleeves. This means that I can’t swim as fast because the clothes slow me down. But if there’s only women present, I can swim in shorts.«
Nidaa Mu´alah, age 21, Beit Jala, plays volleyball
»Volleyball has had an enormous importance to my life. The sport has given me the opportunity to travel the world. When I was younger, my family didn’t want me to travel outside the country – they thought it was too dangerous. But now, with my sport, I can travel the world and represent Bethlehem University, because it is safe under these conditions and therefore my family can accept that I go.«
Areej Najajreh, age 24, Bethlehem, plays basketball
»Here in Bethlehem things has really changed over the past ten years. We have a basketball hoop in our backyard which is being used frequently. But I clearly remember how it wasn’t accepted that boys and girls played together. That we do now. Things have also changed the professional world of sports. I play in a club, and it is now okay for women and men to go on summer camps together and be at the same place when they practise their sport.«
Elham Abi Zaineh, age 21, Hebron, runner
»I go to Bethlehem because I can’t run in Hebron. In Bethlehem it is more accepted and I can run with the organization ‘Right to Movement’. It makes it easier. Where I live, society does not accept a woman running in a hijab. Several has told me to toss the headscarf and run places where people doesn’t know me – in that way they will think that I’m a tourist running. But it is against my religion so there is no other choice for me, but to use the hour it takes to get to Bethlehem.«