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From football to gymnastics: Gender inequality is everywhere
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Regardless of whether a sport is one that is traditionally masculine and or feminine, gender inequality persists across the spectrum - Mariam Ibrahim and Veronique Sprenger recount their experiences.

On 8 March 2022, we will be celebrating International Women’s Day with the theme “#BreakTheBias.” The GIZ Sport for Development sectoral and regional projects will use this day and the GIZ gender week to highlight our female-oriented activities and the incredible women who take part in our activities.

As an introduction to breaking the bias, Mariam Ibrahim, former Egyptian Premier League football player, and Veronique Sprenger, former first division gymnast, share what it was like to participate in their male-dominated and female-dominated sports, respectively.

Mariam

The school bell rings, it’s time to go outside! That automatically meant sprinting to the goal on the football pitch to make sure I wasn’t stuck being the goalie. I was the only girl, but no one cared. The boys didn’t see me as less of a player because I was a girl, and I didn’t have to prove that I was anyone’s equal, we just played football.

Until one day the school started putting together the school football team to participate in a national tournament.

I wanted to play, but there was only a boys’ team, so I wasn’t allowed to play. This is the first time I realized that we were not the same.

As we got older, I continued to play with the boys, who had now become men. I had never thought of pursuing football professionally because I had not seen any women playing on that level.

One day, while playing with the guys at a sports club, a professional coach spotted me and asked me to train with his male team. I didn’t think much of it, went along, and just thought of it as another opportunity to spend more time playing the game I love. This time, it wasn’t the same as the playground experience in school. I was perceived as less, I had everything to prove, and I was isolated from the team. The only thing that remained the same was that I still couldn’t play in tournaments because I am a woman.

The male-dominated sport slowly gained traction with a handful of women’s teams forming the Egyptian Premier League. However, women’s teams were still deprived of playing space, only being allowed to play during Friday prayer times, when men are expected to go pray at the mosque. We did not get paid, our clothes were not sponsored, there were no medics during matches, and there was no media coverage. No one knew who we are.

Veronique

In most sports, gender inequalities impact female athletes more than their male counterparts, just like Mariam described in her football career. However, for gymnastics, this is not the case. It is known as a more artistic, feminine sport. Reporting and broadcasting mostly cover women’s gymnastics, and although monetary income of gymnasts is limited, females tend to earn more than males.

Nevertheless, this comes at a price. Gymnastics is a sport that combines strength, grace, and flexibility. Gymnasts are often at their peak at an early age. When gymnasts perform, they just wear a leotard, revealing their entire body. The combination of these factors leads to the sexualization of the sport and its athletes.

When I was young, I thought nothing of the old men sitting in the audience watching our trainings or of all the male coaches in my sport. I thought nothing of the photographers on competition floors and gymnastics magazines with crotch shots on the cover.

Now that I am older, I have come to realize that my sport may attract a predatory audience. That it was not all so innocent when I was young. The #MeToo movement and the widely known Nassar case in the US have opened my eyes to the sexualization of the sport and how that may be a factor as to why female gymnastics is more popular.

When I was competing, we were not allowed to wear shorts in competitions. Many of us were uncomfortable with our leotards, especially as puberty hit, but we had to follow the old-fashioned rules. Now, the rules have changed and although there is still a long way to go, some gymnasts have already started a revolution in the sport.

The German Female National Gymnastics team showed up to World Championships and the Olympics in beautiful long-legged unitards. Some scrutinized them for their choice, some admired them for their courage. These women were representing something much bigger than what they were wearing. They were making a statement and starting a movement. They are a representation of empowerment and using that empowerment to break the bias.