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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Soccer emerges as the latest football in tug of war between Kuwait’s government and parliament

Kuwaiti Salafi lawmaker Waleed al-Tabtabai urged the government to cancel plans to hold a football tournament for women. (File photo)

Kuwaiti Salafi lawmaker Waleed al-Tabtabai urged the government to cancel plans to hold a football tournament for women. (File photo)
A Kuwaiti Salafi lawmaker has urged the government to cancel plans to hold a football tournament for women.

Waleed al-Tabtabai’s call comes amid an escalating crisis in relations between the government and parliament and a year after Islamist deputies attacked women soccer players for participating in an international tournament.

Mr. Tabtabai’s latest assault constitutes an attempt to prevent Kuwait’s women football association from organizing an indoors tournament. 
“Women playing football is unacceptable and contrary to human nature and good customs. The government has to step in and drop the tournament,” Kuwait’s Al Wasat newspaper quoted Mr. Tabtabai as saying.

Mr. Tabtabai raised the issue of women’s soccer a month after Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed Al Fahad Al Sabah resigned to avoid a torturous grilling by the member of parliament and other opposition deputies. Sheikh Ahmed has narrowly won several parliamentary motions of no-confidence in recent years amid bitter disputes over alleged government corruption and plans for privatization.

The Islamists, including Mr. Tabtabai accuse Sheikh Ahmed, a former Kuwaiti ambassador to Iran who speaks Farsi, of undermining Kuwaiti national security by hosting Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and allowing Iran to replace its expelled envoy in the wake of the discovery of an Iranian spy ring in Kuwait.

Tensions between Sunni and Shiite members of parliament erupted into fistfights in May under the gazing eyes of a group of American lawyers who had been invited to observe the assembly’s proceedings.

Mr. Tabtabai was one of a number of deputies who last year criticized the government and sports executives for allowing the Kuwaiti women’s national soccer team to take part in the Third West Asian Women Soccer Tournament in Abu Dhabi.

The members of parliament charged that the women’s participation had been illegal and a waste of money. “Football is not meant for women, anyway,” Mr. Tabtabai said at the time.

The battle over Kuwaiti women’s soccer symbolizes the continuous struggle for women’s right to play the beautiful game. World soccer body FIFA expressed in March public support for the only recently established Kuwaiti women’s team.

Egyptian soccer trainer Sahar al-Hawari symbolizes the struggle for women’s soccer in the Middle East and North Africa. Controversy ranks high in Mrs. Hawari’s job description. A trailblazer for women’s right to play soccer and only one of a handful of female trainers in the Middle East, Mrs. Hawari operates in a conservative man’s world in which women’s soccer is at best controversial and at worst blasphemous.

The outspoken daughter of an international soccer referee, Mrs. Hawari set out in the early 1990s to build the Arab world’s first association women’s football team and then a regional women’s soccer championship. Defying criticism that she was violating Islamic dress codes for women and tricking them into playing a man’s game, she badgered the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) until it recognized her team.

Her battle resembles the culture clash in the 2002 comedy film “Bend It Like Beckham” portraying a Sikh daughter’s rebellion against her parents refusal to allow her to pursue soccer with one difference: in the Middle East it’s a fact of daily life.

Along the way, members of Mrs. Hawari’s team bucked the trend in more than one way. As Iran and conservative women players in Europe demand the right to cover their heads during matches, Mrs. Hawari’s girls shed their headscarves once in Cairo. Iran’s women’s team last month lost its opportunity to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics after it appeared on the pitch for a match wearing the hijab. FIFA bans the display of religious and political symbols on the pitch.

To take her dream beyond Egypt, Mrs. Hawari persuaded FIFA to threaten Arab football associations that do not have a women’s team with sanctions. FIFA left the Egyptian association no choice but to back Mrs. Hawari’s push for an Arab Women’s Football Championship and forced national associations like that of Kuwait to promote the development of women in the sport.

For Mr. Tabtabai it’s push back time. It is also an opportunity to complicate the government’s life at a moment that it is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Replacing Sheikh Ahmed as deputy prime minister could ease relations with parliament but would be seen as government weakness.

It may however be a better option than the Kuwaiti ruler, Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, dissolving parliament as he has done twice in recent years. That at a time of anti-government protests in demand of a larger popular say in politics and government sweeping the Middle East and North Africa would likely pose greater risks than suffering the humiliation of replacing an already controversial figure.

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