Senegal women tackle taboos to play sports

As the sun sets over the sultry city of Dakar, the paths along the ocean cliffs fill with male - and increasingly female - joggers.

The women are easy to spot. Because of Islamic law, many wear full-length sweat pants and long-sleeved shirts, while the men wear shorts.

It takes a special kind of determination to be a female athlete in West Africa. While the American Women's World Cup winners bask in national adulation, women who play sports here often meet with bemusement, if not religious scorn. Their battles echo the struggles of US women before Title IX, although there are distinct cultural differences.

Abby Atchikiti, who plays college basketball, was frequently told she should spend less time on her dribbling and focus more on her domestic skills while growing up.

But those comments have not deterred the law student from honing her game. In fact, three years ago, with only grudging acquiescence from university officials, she founded the first women's basketball team at St. Louis, one of two public universities in Senegal.

"Even the medical center didn't want to help," she says. "We didn't have a ball. We had to fight men off the court to play. We still don't have any money from the university. It has been promised, but we've never seen it."

Like other West African nations, Senegal suffers from high rates of poverty, unemployment, and political turmoil. There are limited resources for athletic facilities and equipment. There's no Title IX rule giving women's sports equal funding. At the University of St. Louis, for example, female students vie with their male peers for space to play basketball, handball, volleyball, and soccer. Moreover, these women play sports in a country where many still believe that athletics are, by definition, masculine.

Senegal has always idealized its male soccer players. Recently, however, it is women athletes who have captured the national imagination. The women on the University of Dakar team have in recent years brought home successive gold medals from the All-Africa Club Championship. M'Borika Fall and other players on the National Women's Basketball team are now celebrities and, for some, role models.

"They have won trophies and have proven that women can play sports," says Mame Oumy Ciss, an English student from Zinguichor, a city in southern Senegal. The national visibility of women's basketball has changed perceptions of what women can accomplish - and the fact that some of those women are married and have children is revolutionizing ideas about motherhood.

"This is a big change. Before, they had to stop. Doctors said that mothers had to stop playing sports," says Antoinete Mendes, a confident young woman who plays an aggressive game of basketball and practices martial arts. She adds, "Now, it's OK to continue after you have children." A few women even wistfully talk about money and scholarships to universities in the US.

The ambitions and hopes of these young women contrast sharply with the images of African women - as victims of AIDS, poverty, and mutilation - typically found in the Western media. The young women who make it to the university level do not think of themselves as victims.

City girls only

Female athletes are predominantly an urban phenomenon. Of the girls whose families send them to school, many play sports in physical education classes. High school and university students can play on club teams, organized through schools or local communities. Some sports, such as women's basketball, are organized into traditional, established clubs, whereas other sports, such as soccer, have fewer clubs that are not well-supported.

Martha Saavedra, the associate director of the Center for African Studies at University of California at Berkeley, says basketball is perceived as less threatening than soccer: "Basketball is seen as more graceful and elegant, while soccer is a man's sport." Basketball, which has already sent several male players to the US, is now seen by some as an opportunity for women. A few Senegalese women play for US college teams, and one woman, Astou N'Diaye, plays in the WNBA.

The direction and pace of development female athletics in West Africa is strongly influenced by Islam. The women who play soccer at the University of St. Louis, for example, do so against the local imam's declaration that devout Muslim women should not play soccer. Because the Koran states that women should not display their beauty, many Muslims interpret this to mean that women should cover their hair and all exposed skin, prohibiting most athletic clothes. For this reason, it is easier for women to practice martial arts, a sport where they can wear head scarves and uniforms that cover the body.

Female athletes also confront traditional images of beauty. Fatoumata Dram, a petite and athletically built runner, is actively discouraged from sports by her roommate: "People think I'm too thin, too muscled, like a man. My roommate doesn't want me to do sports, because of my body shape; she's afraid that I will lose my form." Ms. Atchikiti has also encountered peer pressure from other female students who do not understand why she likes to watch and play basketball. She says, "There are women who admire us because they can't play, but they also ask, 'Why do you like to play sports?' They say, 'You are too much like men' because we play sports all the time."

Some Senegalese criticize young women like Ms. Dram and Atchikiti for becoming too Westernized. They fear that the younger generation is sacrificing traditional Senegalese values in favor of new, seductive values from America or France.

No identity crisis here

But other young women do not see any conflict between their pursuit of sports and their identity as a Senegalese woman and a Muslim. A number of women independently told the story of how, when a member of the University of Dakar basketball team died, her teammates gave that year's trophy to her husband and children. This example seems to strike a chord among Senegalese, who traditionally value the family quite highly and revere the quality of mbokk, the sharing of duties and obligations within one's extended family. As Senegalese become increasingly mobile, groups like sports teams are like their new families. "Sport brings women together and the team lives as if it is the same family," says Couta Camera, a Muslim who practices Tae Kwon Do.

The final frontier, say female athletes here, is overcoming the opposition of men. "Men have only changed a little, not like women," says Atchikiti. Men who are in positions of power - particularly husbands - can help or hinder women's involvement in sports. Most women involved in sports are unmarried.

When asked about the future of sports in Senegal, women speak with a sense of opportunity and urgency, but there are differences of opinion. Marietou Diallo, a primary school teacher in Dakar, regards her own ability to continue studying karate as a high priority. "I will ask a potential husband if he supports me doing karate, and I will only marry someone who does support it," she says.

Others are more pessimistic. Astou Samb, smiles when asked about the possibilities for playing sports after graduation and shakes her head: "When you're married, you can't continue to practice sports because you have a husband and kids - it's difficult to combine both."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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