Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Iranian women tackle rugby" ... And each other?

I saw this brief story and YouTube video over on Al, describing the development of an Iranian women's rugby team, "Iranian women tackle rugby":

In this example, athletics provides at least a reprieve where women can bond with one another physically and emotionally through rugby. On the field, they appear free from the ubiquitous presence of patriarchy. To some degree, and I would say it is a significant one at the small group level, there is an expression of empowerment and a real venue through which these women assert a feminist agenda. Unfortunately, this agenda can only be pushed through sport so far.

Sport almost never changes the overall dimensions of societal patriarchy. And truthfully, it cannot, because even in an athletic space that excludes males, sport still follows the male model that pits opponents against one another, especially as the stakes increase with opponents vying for physical, economic, and emotional superiority.

More often than not, gaining power through sport eventually means falling into a patriarchal model where individual women rise in privilege economically while reproducing the broader patriarchal forces that collectively oppress women (
e.g., emphasizing femininity via a sexual allure), what Pierre Bourdieu termed, "symbolic violence."

In this example, there are clear vestiges of patriarchy, seen visually through the hijab. However, I would argue the hijab, while perhaps the most visible example of ongoing patriarchy, is not the most significant example. Instead, what we see here is a space where women are allowed to escape temporarily from the confines of masculinity through rugby without changing anything outside of sport at all.

Thus, unless rugby serves as a true catalyst that sparks social change beyond sport, it will ultimately maintain the status quo. Women get a release while tackling one another, and go back to more of the same once off the field. In short, sport can function in the same way for women that religion does for minorities -- as the "opium for the masses."

Granted, as is noted in the video, this league has only been in existence for one year -- an extremely short period -- so perhaps over time, I will be proven wrong. Maybe rugby will spark something in these and other Iranian women off the field. In fact, sports have been used historically to advance some social movements:

However, athletics' power, as demonstrated in the United States through race, was driven largely by a broader Civil Rights Movement. Further, there were clear moments during that movement, that actively excluded female athletes (e.g., the protests during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City).

This is not to dismiss the initiative, courage, or athletic abilities of any female athletes who have pushed a feminist agenda, whether that be the women presented in the above YouTube video or female athletic leaders from Western contexts.

Instead, this is to point out that athletics under their current model do not truly offer women an opportunity to change broad gender inequities. Thus, as much as I would support this Iranian women's rugby league and other sporting endeavors for minority women, I would caution sports' effectiveness in stimulating extensive social change.

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