When high jumper Anna Chicherova won gold for Russia at the 2012 London Olympics, she brought joy to millions of her compatriots, in particular her fellow women. Chicherova was juggling the demands of a one-year-old child with training and had sustained a back injury just months before the Olympic opening ceremony. A few days before the day of the competition, fellow Russian Ivan Ukhov won gold in the men’s high jump despite an injury himself. “I thought if one person survived, the other can too. I walked into the finals as if going to war. I would do everything to win and I did it,” recalls Chicherova. “I screamed. I cried. I think I went mad for a moment and then it was clear that I was the winner.” At the 2012 Olympics, Chicherova, now 32 years old, was the only woman to clear 2.05m, beating her own personal best at the World Championships in South Korea the previous year by 2cm.
The London Olympics that year was a watershed for women in sport with female participation in all 26 sports and delegates from every participating nation, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei for the first time. Out of the 204 National Olympic Committees, 35 had more women than men in their teams. One striking example was Turkey. Noting the remarkable gender reversal, on 30 June 2012, sports commentator Serkan Korkmaz took to Twitter, saying: “Gentleman, admit it, sports are now a ‘woman’s game’ in Turkey.” The London Games were a huge leap forward from the early days of the modern Olympics when its founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, opposed female participation in the Games on the grounds that it would be “unsightly and inappropriate”.
These days female participation in both professional and recreational sport is on the rise, helping to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. This cultural sea change, although inspired by top athletes such as Chicherova, is much more grassroots in nature, with a new generation of women not only from Russia but also from other central and eastern European countries and across the Middle East embracing more active, healthier lifestyles and encouraging others to do the same. The women in these regions — from Turkey, Poland, the UAE, Oman and Russia, to name just a few countries — are overcoming social, political and religious barriers to assert their right to sporting life and by doing so breaking taboos and defying traditional gender stereotypes. From Moscow to Muscat, the examples of ordinary women breaking the mould abound. This June, skateboarding superstar Katya Shengeliya participated in the X Games in Austin, becoming the first Russian action sports athlete ever to be invited to the prestigious event. Her do-it-yourself attitude ensured she made it to the top in Russia despite a lack of suitable skateboarding infrastructure in Moscow to practice on. Over in Iran, 2014 documentary Into the Sea showed the determination of three Iranian women to overcome social constraints in order to follow their passion: surfing.
As Chicherova sees it, it is her responsibility as a professional athlete to share her experiences, and to inspire and motivate other women. “Sport and fitness are now a normal part of a woman’s everyday training regime, which helps boost self-confidence and independence,” she says. Nowhere is this more visible than in Moscow, where the health and fitness industry is flourishing, with an ever-growing number of women doing yoga, crossfit, boxing, swimming and running to name just a handful of sports, a shift connected to much broader social and cultural changes taking place within the city. “Five years ago nobody was running on the streets of Moscow because it was perceived as a boring, out-of-date activity with roots in the Soviet Union,” says Chicherova. “Perceptions have now changed and you can see a lot of young people running in the city.” Despite the generally conservative nature of Russian society, young women are blazing a trail in a variety of fields, from sports to technology to the arts, and by doing so, redefining what it means to be a woman in the capital today. “Sport can really give you confidence and change your life for the better,” says Chicherova. “Especially when you have girls who are the same around you who can support each other.”
Olya Markes is one of those at the forefront of this fitness movement, inspiring women to embrace a healthier lifestyle with the help of her school Sekta. What started as a blog is now a rapidly growing health and fitness school with branches across Russia as well as in Ukraine and Belarus. In addition to offering a range of exercise classes both online and off, the school teaches women to eat healthily and promotes a body positive image that shows that beautiful, healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes. “I think our popularity is based on the fact that we’ve stayed true to the original idea — combining sport and diet in tune with common sense and the demands of modern life,” says Markes. “Every challenge should be chosen voluntarily and our task is to give our audience tools to set goals and challenge themselves. We support gradual development, to go further, to raise the bar.”
“When you do sports you lose your perception of how you’re supposed to look. We end up with a generation of women who are more confident in themselves, more ambitious, more open-minded, competitive and proud of themselves.”
Another pioneer, Alexandra Boyarskaya, is widely credited with being a part of the running revolution. Her story begins in 2011, when she started an inspirational blog about running while living in London. Less than a year later she moved back to Moscow and helped to set up one of the first running clubs in Gorky Park. “By the end of the first season around 300 people turned up one evening and me and the three coaches just looked at each other and said we couldn’t believe this was happening,” says Boyarskaya. Today Moscow is host to a marathon and boasts numerous running clubs across the city that continue throughout the bitterly cold Russian winter. As well as helping to fend off the winter blues, for Boyarskaya, running can help women boost their self-esteem. “When you do sports you lose your perception of how you’re supposed to look,” she says. “We just end up with a generation of women who are more confident in themselves, who are more ambitious, who are more open-minded, who are more competitive and proud of themselves. I think that’s a much healthier society generally.”
Athletes and sport community leaders across Russia are taking action to inspire and motivate girls to embrace sport as a part of their everyday life
The rise in fitness culture in Moscow over recent years has gone hand-in-hand with the city government’s overhaul of its parks, which have been transformed from creaking Soviet-era spaces into hip venues, with restaurants and bars but also facilities such as cycling lanes and clubs for sports such as running. “The idea of a healthy lifestyle, which does not mean giving up anything in your life but taking on something sporty and cool, has become very popular in Moscow,” says Boyarskaya. “It’s a big shift from five years ago.” This cultural shift, however, is not restricted to Russia, with running clubs popping up in unlikely places, challenging social norms about how women use public spaces and helping to reverse decades of gender-based discrimination in physical education and sport.
Dubai, a city in the UAE which is subject to Sharia law, is just one such example of a place experiencing a fitness boom that is transforming the lives of local women. Smashing stereotypes of Muslim women, in 2014, Suad Abdullah Sultan, a media reporter and photographer, launched running club She Runs Dubai, to encourage others to join her on her runs. Swapping her abaya for leggings and a long shirt when she goes out running in order to observe the Islamic dress code, Sultan runs twice a week with a group of up to 30 Emirati women, an unusual sight in the desert city. Undeterred by social norms and driven by a gritty determination, the women can be seen running on the streets, beaches and bridges of Dubai, even in the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. Set on inspiring and motivating their fellow compatriots, the running group not only challenges perceived notions of what it means to be a woman in an Islamic country but is also helping to foster a new culture of health and fitness by showing women that they can achieve anything they set their minds to. “I get women who tell me, ‘I’ve never run before, what will it be like?’ and I say just come and see,” says Sultan. “When they come we start with one km and then they feel the positive energy around us, supporting each other and they end up running much more.”
Another resident of Dubai, Heba Abdel Gawad, who competed in synchronised swimming at the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympics Games for Egypt, has lived in the city since 2013 and works as a personal trainer and pilates instructor. After giving up her life as an Olympic athlete, Abdel Gawad left Egypt to move to the UK to study Sports Science. “When I was there [Cairo] nobody really went to classes and fitness wasn’t something you could make a career out of at all,” she says. “But now there are so many trainers and so many classes that are doing amazingly well both there and in Dubai.” Along with her sister, Abdel Gawad organises synchronised swimming clubs for children in the city to encourage interest in the sport. “We have waiting lists at every venue,” she says.
Encouraging girls to take up sport at a young age is one of the many upshots of the fitness revolution and nowhere more so that in the Middle East and North Africa. While the lack of physical education is still prevalent across this region, change, although slow, is taking place. Even deeply conservative Saudi Arabia is inching closer to a policy that will allow girls to play sports at state schools despite opposition from hardliners. Facilitating this change are a number of women from the region who are building on their passion for sports to challenge gender stereotypes and discrimination. Fatma al-Nabhani, a tennis player from Oman and the only professional sportswoman in the region, is one such game changer.
Raised in a sporting family, Al-Nabhani went on to become an Arab and West Asian champion at a young age, inspiring countless women and girls across the Middle East to try their hand at tennis. Earlier this year, the 24-year-old became the first Arab woman to appear on the front cover of Women’s Health Middle East. “The choices and access for women who love sport and fitness are better than ever,” says Al-Nabhani. “Now is our time as Arab women to shine in the world of sport and fitness and reach new heights.” Yet success did not come easy, not least because of the practicalities of growing up in Oman. “Being the only woman athlete is tough because you don’t have other players to practice with,” she says. “Luckily I had my brothers.” The lack of tournaments in the region also means that the 24-year-old is almost always travelling far away from home, none of which would have been possible without the support of her family. “My mum was always told, what are you doing, there’s no future in sport,” says Al-Nabhani. “But she proved them wrong.” Like so many other Muslim athletes, Al-Nabhani has adapted her attire to meet the demands of her culture, wearing leggings beneath her skirts and three-quarter length sleeves. “I tried to respect my culture and something good came out of it,” she says. “I started wearing it and everybody picked it up including young girls who liked the idea of playing comfortably and not feeling shy if their skirts lifted up.”
In Turkey, female athletes continue to fight for their rights to play sports both professionally and recreationally, with glittering results. In 2013, the Ministry of Youth and Sports announced that there were more female than male athletes registered with the ministry and that the number of women in sports such as rugby and boxing outnumbered men. Lotus Tüzün, a national fencing champion and law student who started out in boxing and karate as a young child, went on to win five Turkish national fencing championships and compete in the European and World championships. “In the first matches, my hands would shake. I would be scared of stepping on the piste,” she says. “I overcame my fear as I achieved more. The greatest contribution of sports is that I was able to see that I could succeed if I worked hard enough and I also became more confident. Meaning that if I set a goal, it is up to me to reach it or no. Therefore, it is not just the sports; it is a reflection on your whole life.”
Back in Moscow, Chicherova is enjoying her life as a mother and a professional athlete. Will she encourage her daughter Nika, named after the Greek goddess of victory, to follow in her footsteps? Yes, she says. “I will suggest that she goes in for sports, whichever one, but I want it to be her own decision.” As one of Russia’s top sporting role models, Chicherova spends much of her time visiting schools to talk about being an athlete and the “friends, travel, dignity and respect” that comes with the sporting life.
“I tell the kids that all I have in my life today is because of sport,” she says. “My family, my friends, the world, which I have seen and see now through different eyes. My personality which has grown and been shaped by my training, my losses and wins.” When asked about her future plans, Chicherova responds coyly. “What do I expect from the Games in Rio? I am not telling,” she says. “But to go to Brazil in 2016 as a sports tourist — that’s not the year and that’s definitely not the kind of choice I make.”
With athletes such as Chicherova and the many community leaders across central and eastern Europe and the Middle East working towards the same goal of motivating women to embrace healthier, active lifestyles, contemporary fitness is no longer just a recreational activity but a statement of resolve, a way of life and a form of liberation.
Text: Maryam Omidi
Image: Ivan Kaydash (Anna Chicherova), Deniz Özgün (Klok magazine), Naim Chidiac (She Runs Dubai), Artur Wesołowski (Anna Lewandowska)
Video: Kathryn Ferguson (Russia and Turkey), Poppy de Villeneuve (Oman)