Doha, QATAR -- Led by volunteer coaches and united by a love for the sport, the women’s basketball team at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) claimed the intercollegiate league championship.
The team excelled despite the sport’s relative newness in Qatar and the cultural challenges facing female athletes in the Middle East. Women’s sports participation is increasing, albeit incrementally, as females work to balance tradition with modernity in the face of sweeping social change in the region.
“Sports competition and athletic activity have not been commonly encouraged for girls and women in the Middle East, so this brave basketball team is doing more than engaging in competitive activity,” said Everette E. Dennis, the dean and CEO of NU-Q. “They’re making a larger and important statement at the same time.”
NU-Q’s squad, led by Qatari co-captain Maha Al-Ansari, included a wide variety of nationalities, including Jordanian, Palestinian, Bulgarian, Filipino, Canadian, Lebanese and Pakistani.
The Wildcats were mentored and coached by Dana Atrach, an NU-Q alumna and league Most Valuable Player in 2013, and Emily Wilson, an alumna of the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies and manager for community relations at NU-Q.
“We focused on what unites us,” Wilson said. “We're Wildcats and athletes, and our unity as a team eclipses any nationality or cultural differences we might have.”
Female sports participation in the Middle East is on the rise, but women and girls in the region often face a unique set of challenges not seen by their Western counterparts, including religion, family and changing gender dynamics, according to published research conducted at NU-Q.
In some ways, “college campuses provide institutional legitimacy for women playing sports,” said sociologist Geoff Harkness, lead author of the NU-Q study, “Out of Bounds: Cultural Barriers to Female Sports Participation in Qatar.”
“They might not be able to play street corner basketball, but if they do it under the umbrella of the university, families have easier times supporting it,” said Harkness, now an associate professor at Morningside College in Iowa.
Harkness suspects that sport participation both reflects and drives cultural change. “To some degree, sports are a form of social movement in the Middle East,” he said.
Though students at NU-Q tend to come from more liberal families, “there are a few women on the team for whom this is a big deal because they are stepping outside boundaries and their comfort zone,” Harkness said.
Co-captain Al-Ansari was born in Doha and raised in Tokyo. She returned to Qatar for high school, where she played basketball, volleyball and soccer. As a Qatari national with a passion for sports, she loves encouraging other women to join the sports community. In 2012, Al-Ansari helped start the NU-Q women’s soccer team.
The basketball team lacked a superstar -- and that was the key to their success, she said. “We played exceptionally well as a team,” said Al-Ansari, a senior at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications. “Opponents had trouble beating us because we didn’t have the one player to stop. Everyone brought something different but important.”
NU-Q, the newest addition to the Hamad bin Khalifa University (HBKU) Basketball League in Education City, joined during the 2009-10 school year and has finished among the top three each season.
“We weren’t taken seriously our first season,” said Wilson. “But once we placed in the tournament (the first year), we were immediately one of the teams to beat.”
This year, the NU-Q women defeated teams from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, Texas A&M University at Qatar, Georgetown University in Qatar and Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, all located within Education City, which houses satellite campuses of some of the world’s leading universities.
For Al-Ansari, the season highlight was beating Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, since Weill handed the Wildcats their only defeat of the regular season. The teams were evenly matched, but with about three minutes to go, Al-Ansari was confident they’d pull it out.
“Being a part of the Wildcats’ basketball team has been one of the greatest learning experiences in my four years at NU-Q,” she said. “We have worked hard since day one, and having your hard work pay off is probably one of the best feelings in the world.”
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