Among the 10,000 athletes, myriad trapeze artists and floating 3D humpback whales slated to feature in the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games on Friday, there will be a notable absence. In several teams, including those fielded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, there will be no women. While the number of all-male teams banning women for "cultural and religious reasons" has decreased sharply, from 35 in Barcelona in 1992 to five in Athens in 2004, Muslim women from Arab countries are still under-represented at the Games.
In Heart and Soul (BBC World Service, Friday), Dale Gavlak sought out sportswomen who have found ways around the strictures placed on their competing in the same venues as men and wearing immodest clothing. They included Nawal El Moutawakel from Morocco, the first Arab, Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal, in 1984; Maha Barghouti, a wheelchair-bound Jordanian table tennis champion; and Heba Mustafa, an Egyptian rowing hope who competes wearing a headscarf. All talked intelligently about the tug between the athlete's desire to win at all costs and observing their beliefs. In truth, the programme raised more questions that it answered – not least, should the IOC allow countries to compete which actively discriminate against women? – but it also illustrated that there is no one-size-fits-all experience.
While El Moutawakel, the only female in the 100-strong 1984 team, was widely celebrated and eventually crowned the country's Minister for Sport, Hasiba Boulmerka, who brought home Algeria's first gold medal (for the 1,500m in 1992) was roundly condemned for running "half-naked" in front of the world.
In 2004, the 17-year-old Bahraini Rakia Al-Gassra ignored protestations from her village to sprint the 100m, wearing a headscarf, tracksuit bottoms and a long-sleeved T-shirt. In Beijing, Mustafa will follow her lead, stating that the headscarf keeps her hair out of her eyes on the windy river. The programme revealed a schism between Mustafa and her synchronised swimming team-mates whose glitzy outfits she deemed un-Islamic. "I wouldn't play a sport that requires me to wear shorts or a T-shirt because in our religion, it's haram – forbidden. I see other people wearing swimsuits or shorts, but I'm pretty sure they can't feel happy about it."
In Saudi Arabia, in the absence of any Olympic stars to profile, Gavlak found two sisters, Danaya and Lina al-Maeena, who have set up their own basketball team, Jeddah United. Though they struggle to find referees or trainers and are frequently turned away from courts in the city, both opined that it was only "a matter of time" before they would be allowed to compete at the Olympics. I'm not sure I shared their optimism, but this was timely, thought-provoking radio.
Over in Beijing, frantic Olympic officials – who have been firing rockets into the sky to dispel the pea-souper enveloping the bird's nest stadium – would do well to listen again to The Material World (BBC Radio 4, Thursday).
This week it was about the birth of clouds. Might knowing more about the role of pollution in their formation help us to control the weather, asked an excitable Quentin Cooper? "There's still a lot of work to do," came the cagey answer from the cloud don. Ah well, it was still a compelling mini-investigation. This week the myth of fingerprints as the mystical key to human identity was also soundly debunked. "They're just friction ridges that enable us to grip things."Reuse content