The 2018 Winter Olympics are upon us. There is much buzz regarding the upcoming PyeongChang Games and it promises much excitement. For the first time, we will see an all-women Nigerian bobsled team andIndigenous hockey players on the ice. 

I am all here for women slaying in any sport. Particularly those women who might not be considered typical athletes. 

Currently in the United Arab Emirates, over 1,000 athletes are gathered to partake in the 2018Arab Women Sports Tournament (AWST). The women will compete in basketball, volleyball, fencing, archery and other athletic events. There are 16 countries taking part in the 12-day tournament – hosts the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Djibouti.

The first AWST was held in 2012 with the full support of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al-Qasimi with the hope of amplifying women’s sport in the Arab region. Her husband is the ruler of Sharjah, so she had the support of leadership with promoting and running it. Sheikha Jawaher collaborated with the Arab Olympic committee and the Sharjah Sports Club for Women to plan and execute the event, which began on February 2nd and runs until February 12th.

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The AWST is important for many reasons. In areas of the Middle East where there may not be leagues or regular tournaments, it provides a space for women to showcase their talent through teams at various sports clubs. There are 68 clubs representing 16 different countries, which is a 70% increase from the games held two years ago. 

Organizing committee member Sheikha Hayat Al Khalifa has said this of the event: "AWST 2018 reflects the growth of the female sports industry across the Arab region, and the significant attention and support it has received from female athletes and sports associations across the region. This year, AWST celebrates the addition of a new game, totalling the number of sports to nine, and celebrates being environmentally friendly, all initiatives to create a competitive and clean sports atmosphere for all players."

Not only is AWST the largest event of its kind in the region, it fosters sportsmanship and camaraderie among women in sport in Arab nations . The hope is that this will lead to more events and support from all levels of federations and government. In addition to the sporting aspect, the event also offered media training and a workshop for aspiring sports journalists.

The Saudi Gazette, Khaleej Times, Arab News and sports360 are among the newspapers who are reporting on the events. 

The tournament is being live-streamed by Shajrah Sports TV. This is also a crucial step in amplifying women’s sport: providing live coverage and accessibility to supporters.  

The AWST is not only for Arab or Muslim women. In fact, there are non-Arab women participating in the games.

African-American basketball player, high school record holder and former Division I NCAA player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is playing with a club based in Mogadishu. Abdul-Qaadir is not from Somalia but there are exceptions and allowances for the club teams for the tournament. It is the first time an African country is participating in the AWST. It is important that the Games were opened up to clubs outside the region but inclusive of other Muslim women’s team who might not have such opportunities. 

And Abdul-Qaadir, who hasn’t played basketball at this level because of a hijab ban by FIBA, jumped at the opportunity. She has had two games and single-handedly contributed 30+ points. But this is not without challenges. 

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir | FIBA ALLOW HIJAB

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir broke records and barriers on her way to becoming the first Division I basketball player to play wearing hijab. When a controversial ruling ends her chances at playing professionally, she re-examines her faith and identity as an African-American Muslim. Great Big Story and CNN Films Present FIBA Allow Hijab, an UNINTERRUPTED Production / A Pixela Pictura Film.

“We only have six players, two of which are beginners from Somalia and haven’t really competed at this level. The other Somali-Americans are young players, so this is also new for them. We only have one sub so we all are very tired because we are logging a lot of minutes,” she tells me via email from Sharjah. “We are giving these professional teams a run for their money. We are keeping up with them and the other coaches get nervous during the game because they don’t expect us to play so well. It’s fun!”

In addition to naturally slaying on the court, this provides an opportunity for Abdul-Qaadir to be seen by professional teams and perhaps be picked up long-term. She is considering all options. 

In addition to benefiting Muslim athletes, non-Arab and non-Muslim athletes have been competing as well. Marie-Sophie Nadeau, a volleyball player with Team Canada is playing with the Sharjah Ladies Club. Nadeau, a decorated international player, has been wiping the floor with her incredible talent. Each club is permitted two professional players. This raises the level of competition and affords the younger players incredible match-ups on the court. 

Nadeau, a French-Canadian, adapted quickly to her environment. Athletes are not required to wear hijab but are encouraged to cover their legs. Nadeau chose to wear tights under her shorts, which is very common for many players. But throughout all the events, we see different styles of dressing by athletes, which is powerful and necessary in itself.

More than a platform to amplify women’s sports, Nadeau feels that the tournament is very special and is impressed with the history and culture behind the women who have organized and hosted during the tournament. Heading towards the final in volleyball, she told me that this tournament mirrors many others in the passion and drive of the athletes. 

Arab Women Sports Tournament - Sound by: Layal Watfeh

Uploaded by Layal Watfeh on 2016-06-26.

“The fight is real, everyone wants to finish first,” she said. “I saw tears, disappointment of a loss. I also feel that no matter the competition, the women are here to enjoy their sporting event and cheer for each other.”

Athleticism, dedication to sport, navigating through challenges and advocacy are part of what drives these women. The AWST is projected to grow even more and hopefully provide even more space for women to shine. This initiative will not only help encourage women sports journalists, organizers and officials, but carve out a very necessary space for women in all forms of sports.