x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The women's majlis: The level of sport for women in the UAE

The need of the day is to balance a love of sport with traditions.

Each month, Weekend will pose a different question to be debated by a series of female Emirati columnists. This month, we ask Dana Al Mutawa:

What do you think about the level of sport for women in the UAE? Would you do anything to change it?

Five years back, it was odd to see any Emirati women in sports teams.

Sports are often associated with being rough and masculine, and a woman involved in a sport would be perceived as one of "those". When it comes to equestrian events, for example, many assume that strong horses need a rider with great strength to keep them under control. But women are better when it comes to handling tough horses during races; hot-blooded and nervous horses can actually be controlled better by soft hands.

Many people from older generations used to consider it a taboo for women to take part in sports. Thus, several families were hesitant when it came to allowing their daughters to participate in public sporting events, aware that this could be a factor that leads to defamation. I personally know so many cases where girls used false names so that they would not be identified.

However, this has changed in the past few years, and we have started seeing a number of women taking part in equine sports, all the while decently and appropriately exposed in appearance, which has gradually changed society's perception. Equestrian sports in the UAE have been supported by the Emirates Equestrian Federation, through the sponsorship of the royal families. We have also seen women from royal families taking part in various sports, and being very ambitious and successful. Having them as role models has proved invaluable.

When the ladies' endurance races first took place in Abu Dhabi in 2008, the event had a limited access and almost no media coverage. But I believe such races at least served the main purpose, which is to get women to be engaged in the sport and feel comfortable to show up and participate.

Races no longer follow this system of enclosure. If we want more women to have the opportunities, then we should at least make the setting suitable and adaptable based on their environment, which is happening now. Once the concept is digested, it will encourage other women to show up in ladies' races.

I entered the endurance field six years ago. My family wasn't entirely convinced with the concept of racing, but as they observed the nature of the sport, they started accepting the idea. It allows me to participate and excel all the while preserving my decency and modesty in terms of appearance.

Knowing that my family is supportive of my activities has made me more confident to focus on my ambition.

Throughout this past endurance season, with the support of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum and trainer Ali Al Muhairi of Seeh Al Salam stables, I was able to mark five victories.

Dana Al Mutawa is an endurance horse-racing champion and a recent graduate of international affairs from Zayed University