International Women’s Day is an appropriate time (and excuse) for coming late to this subject. For the list of idiocies, to say the least, inflicted on women by men got even longer earlier this week when the projected third annual Gaza Marathon was cancelled, because the governing Hamas organisation either didn’t want women (and girls) to race at all, or they demanded full body cover.
This in a race of 42.195 kilometres, at a time of year when temperatures average 23C (74F), with the majority of the contestants out on the road in the sun for up to six hours and more!
Given the history of armed violence in the region, shooting yourself in the foot seems a wholly appropriate term for men who want to live as if it was 1013, rather than 2013.
There is much and increasing sympathy around the world for the plight of the Palestinians. Even a Conservative Prime Minister like David Cameron, on a recent trip, compared their continuing submission to the Israeli war machine as like living in a prison camp.
Reference to another type of camp – and were not talking holidays here – might have been a little too strong. But there is much evidence to suggest that, like the violent sons of violent fathers, an abused people can all too easily turn into an abusing people.
But, all too frequently, as in this case, women are an easy target for abuse and exclusion.
In 1928, when the half-dozen, probably undertrained women who finished the Olympic 800 metres displaying signs of distress, any women’s race over 200 metres was promptly dropped from the Olympic programme, until 1960. As you might imagine, there were no women on the committee who made this decision.
And while huge strides have been made across the spectrum of women’s rights in the half-century since the Rome Olympics, social development in parts of what we call the Third World has been compromised by a fundamentalist mindset.
When Hassiba Boulmerka won the World 1500 metres title in Tokyo 1991, she was denounced by clerics in her native Algeria for running in shorts, ‘showing her body off to the world’. But Boulmerka was equal to the criticism, having, she told me early the next year been regularly spat upon when she trained (not even in shorts) in public. She and her pentathlete colleague Yasmina Azzizi, fifth in Tokyo, derided their critics as, ‘old men with beards’.
Boulmerka went on to win the Olympic 1500 metres title in Barcelona 1992, and promptly dedicated her victory to the recently assassinated President Mohammed Boudiaf. Considering that a sort of civil war had already broken out between followers of the old men with beards and the Algerian armed forces – following the cancellation of elections that fundamentalist were poised to win – that was a pretty brave stance to take.
Tegla Loroupe is similarly an icon for marathon women across the world. But the Kenyan repeatedly had to defy her father in their rural community, in order to pursue her ambition to be a successful runner. And when she went to live and train in Germany, she gave the male colleagues who shared the accommodation equally short shrift when they brought their washing to her. Several of them ended up pacing her in her world record races.
As for forbidding women to drive or even control their own passports, as remains the case in Saudi Arabia, well, the mind can only boggle; whatever that means?
Loroupe’s experience with her father is mirrored by Noura Shoukri, one of the young Gazan women who ran in the first two marathons and wanted to run the now cancelled third. Shukri, 15, said this week, “My dad told me that I’m a pretty woman now, and not a girl anymore, so I can’t run in the streets. It will be a headache for him, because people will gossip”.
As the suffragettes discovered to their cost, no matter how many men might be on their side, they had to do all the hard work, and suffer the consequences en route themselves. It’s a hard road, and not just in the marathon.