London show explores hurdles for Arab sportswomen


In a darkened room, an image of Olympic hopeful Noor al-Malki jogging on the spot in a black headscarf beams down from a large screen.

But the cheery 17-year-old sprinter from Qatar, due to be one of the first women to represent her country at an Olympics, admits she was not always this confident in front of the camera.

“At first I was shy to be on television without my veil,” she said on the video. “But my brothers encouraged me, told me that this is the way for an athlete and that you shouldn't be shy and just be strong.”

Now, photographs of Malki performing stretches in her athletic gear and images of other Arab sportswomen leap from the walls of Sotheby’s in London in an exhibition by award-winning photographer Brigitte Lacombe and her sister, filmmaker Marian.

From swimming to fencing to athletics, “Hey’Ya”, or “Let’s Go”, commissioned by Qatar Museums Authority, gives a snapshot of Arab sportswomen and their sometimes Olympian efforts, not to win at the Games, but to be able to play sport at all.

“They tell you personal stories, of how they managed to convince their parents, or how their family helped them, or how they had to fight to get into sport,” Marian Lacombe said.

Attitudes to female participation in sports vary greatly across the Arab world. While women in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have been competing in sport for a long time, other countries are more restrictive.

In ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, Muslim clerics have repeatedly spoken out against women taking part in sport, although the kingdom is allowing women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time ever this summer.

“I was very taken by all these girls and their determination, their grace, their endurance, and their intelligence to know what battle to fight and what battle to leave for later,” Brigitte Lacombe said.

The exhibition showcases photographs and video interviews of more than 50 Arab sportswomen from 20 Arab countries, ranging from amateurs to Olympians, whose sights are firmly fixed on London’s podiums.

The pictures and films were shot during the 2011 Arab Games in Doha, as well as during travels by the Lacombes to countries in the Gulf and North Africa. But Brigitte Lacombe said the project captured an image of the entire Arab world.

“It is a general vision for many people because of the diversity of all these women. You look at them and some are covered, some are not covered at all,” she said.

“It's representative of the Arab world and I hope it will help make a change.”

The free exhibition will run from July 25 to August 11, 2012.