In their red, white and blue uniforms, Kuwait’s first female ice hockey team is training hard in the desert ahead of their debut world tournament later this month.
Athletes in hijab or with their hair hastily tied in topknots pull on their helmets before taking to the rink in the Kuwaiti capital, where temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius.
Team player Bahar Al-Harban told AFP: “It’s totally new, girls playing this sort of demanding sport here in Kuwait and in the Gulf, but it goes to show that in sports there is truly no difference between men and women.”
According to the Kuwaiti News Agency (KUNA), Kuwait’s women’s ice hockey team first emerged in 2007, as part of an initiative launched by the Kuwait Winter Sports Federation.
However, the team was suspended due to the lack of financial capacities, before being re-launched recently by the federation.
Although winter sports are not familiar in the Arab World, sports on ice have made headlines recently. Along with women hockey practiced in many countries, UAE national Zahra Lari has gained popularity as the Emirates’ first female figure skater and the first international figure skater to compete in hijab.
According to KUNA, Kuwait’s women’s ice hockey team will play their first international game on October 30 at the Ice Hockey World Championship in Bangkok.
Kuwait’s women’s ice hockey team is composed of 56 players between the ages of 15 and 30, some of them mothers who frequently bring their children to training.
Shile the athletes have the support of their teammates and, increasingly, of their communities, what they lack is their own training facility. For now, they still rent the ice rink in a state-run ski lounge.
Sheikha Naima Al-Sabah, president of the Kuwaiti Women’s Sports Authority said: “We need facilities dedicated to training women to convince families that that their daughters need to be involved in sports.”
“We initially faced some resistance due to social traditions, but the culture of women in sports is spreading and we’re not regular faces at Asian tournaments,” she told AFP, adding “So we are progressing, but slowly, because some of our girls immediately marry at a certain age, or because they choose to wear hijab in a world where you’re not allowed into certain sports like basketball if you choose to wear hijab.”
International basketball governing body FIBA in May rescinded a ban on hijab and other forms of religious head covers, which on the grounds that they could potentially fall off and pose a risk to players.
But with its oversized jerseys, shin guards and helmets, hockey is a good fit for many of players.
Team player Khaleda Abdel Karim said her family didn’t oppose her participation in the hockey team, noting that the uniform totally covers everything, so she finds no difficulties at all in that sense.
Despite the warm welcome the team has received, the women are still fighting to both secure the best for their athletes — and to overcome culture challenges both at home and abroad.
Sabah said in order to get the best results, players need to be given the best training. “What we need are good coaches, professional trainers,” she added.