Qatar’s female national teams have participated in a number of international sports competitions. Despite being fairly new to the sports scene, these teams have been recognized for their skills and professionalism at the Gulf and Arab regional levels. So, what is the journey that led to the rise of these national teams and their competence at world championships? As the former President of the Women’s Committee, and Health and Safety Consultant at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Ms. Ahlam Salem Al-Mana has played a major role in the development of women’s sports in the State of Qatar, including the success of its national teams in championships worldwide. So, who is Ahlam Al-Mana?
I am a naturally ambitious and patriotic individual who loves to serve her country through sports – my area of expertise. When I was young, I did not have the opportunity to represent my country in any international sports championships or contests. So, when it was proposed by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser to develop women’s sports in Qatar, I was one of the first women to jump on board with enthusiasm and dedication. I aspire to highlight the abilities of every ambitious woman that I work with and to give them the opportunity to emphasize their role in society. On top of that, I am a mother and a wife.
Sports has always been my favorite subject in school. I participated in a number of events, both within my school and nationally. To my luck, the Department of Physical Education at Qatar University had opened by the time I graduated high school, so I majored in this field and joined the faculty after graduating with a bachelor’s degree. I was very successful in sports and physical education classes, but my teachers especially emphasized my administrative abilities in the major. After 12 years of teaching, the Women’s Sports Committee was launched, and I became a member of the first ever board. Beginning as a member of the board of directors, I worked my way up to Financial Director, Secretary to the Vice President, and finally earning the position of President of the Women’s Sports Committee.
Have you witnessed the impact of your work in the Women’s Sports Committee on Qatari girls?
Yes, we started from scratch in 2001 when sports activities were limited to school events only. I’ve learned that each step of the process requires an action appropriate to its time. For instance, at the time our main issue was not the lack of athletic abilities amongst female students, but the unwillingness of family members to have their daughters participate in external sports clubs and international games. So, to account for this, we decided to train girls within their school itself – to limit the notion of an external body. We faced a number of difficulties over the duration of the process, but Praise be to Allah, we overcame them step by step and experienced a great turnout of Qatari girls in the sports scene as a result.
After we developed this training plan, our second step was to establish national sports teams and participate in foreign championships. Our first participation in a foreign championship was held in Iran in 2003, where we participated in handball and shooting. In order to ensure that we got parental consent and to reassure parents about their daughters, half of our team consisted of female administrators whose purpose was to look out for the girls. We also set up an info session for parents beforehand where they were given a detailed brief about the trip. These were amongst the obstacles that thwarted the Committee’s development, but we overcame them through these strategies, Praise be to Allah.
After capturing social acceptance and trust, Qatar’s female national team thrived. We began participating in open championships, meaning that they were not closed to female viewers only. In these games, the players would be dressed in the national uniform consisting of a head veil and modest sportswear. To prepare, we began by inviting parents to attend a friendly match between the Qatari national team and the Jordanian national team during the 2008 handball championships in Qatar. I had noticed that whenever we invited parents to attend an event, only mothers would show up, so I decided to explicitly extend the invitation to mothers and fathers both. Many of our players’ fathers were athletes themselves, so they were delighted to be able to see their daughters in action. In addition to this, we also invited a group of media networks to cover the game, in addition to having a renowned professional coach present with the aim of elevating thenational team’s level. These steps were risky, but they were done at the right time and in the right direction, so they reaped successful results. When making any decision it is important that you defend it extensively enough that others are not given the chance to criticize and doubt it. I was prepared to support my decision, with evidence of its success at hand. At the end of the day, Praise be to Allah, everyone was pleased with the quality of the event.
Have you faced any challenges during your time in the Women’s Sports Committee?
Let me tell you about one of the incidents that we experienced regarding the veil during the Asian Games. The national team was successful in many games, especially table tennis. This was because most games were indifferent to the veil and so we could freely participate. The difficulty lied in basketball. In the Asian Games, basketball players were banned from wearing the veil on the court. Since this rule unrightfully discriminated against our players, we decided to set out to change it. We began by harnessing the media presence at the Asian Games to communicate our message: the discrimination of team members in sport competitions on the basis of the veil was an act of discrimination and a violation of personal freedom. The incident captured the attention of the public and eventually found its way to the International Federation who changed the rules upon realizing the number of women impacted by them. As a result, the girls were able to play in one of the basketball sub-championships through which we qualified for the World Championships. It was an important step forward for us.
Following this event, I participated in a conference in Morocco focusing on ‘sports laws’, where I discussed the status of veiled women in sports. Within a year, the official legal regulations had changed, and veiled women were allowed to participate in championships.
How did these experiences affect you personally and professionally
As a result of these experiences I was able to learn the importance of patience in any decision-making process, in addition to the need to plan and think ahead before implementing any idea. Both of these qualities have proven to be extremely useful in my professional career. I advise you to take full advantage of any opportunities that come your way. Participate in conferences – they help you gain useful experiences and build fruitful relationships.
Personally, I gained a sense of fondness and attachment to my work and to my colleagues. One of the many figures that I encountered during my professional career that I will continue to remember is a colleague who I met during her job interview. She had applied for a position in the Women’s Sports Committee despite its demanding work; we had long working hours with a very small salary. Regardless, this girl was ambitious and passionate about her work and continued to excel to higher positions through which she served her country in the field that she loved.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Our society is plagued by the fear of other people’s opinions and thoughts of our work and is therefore marked by a reluctance to stand out. My advice to you is to extinguish this fear. Go ahead with your work and do your best to accomplish it to the best of your ability. You may be faced with an overwhelming barrier – 90% of the public may oppose you while only 10% support your endeavors – but the proportion of supporters will increase over time and as your work develops. If you have an idea, do not hesitate to bring it to life. Even if you fail on the first try, you will succeed eventually and achieve the endpoint that you envisioned. I will conclude with this short story: during my time at the Women’s Sports Committee, we were annually invited to attend the Women in Sport Summit, an internationally-held conference. Each year, the summit opened with the recognition of women who had made an impactful contribution to women’s sports. One woman from each continent was awarded each year, and one woman was awarded for her efforts on an international level. I remember contemplating the possibility of me being awarded on behalf of Asia based on our hard work and dedication – I didn’t even consider the international level – and in the 2012 Women in Sport Summit, I was invited to collect an award. I immediately thought that I was going to be awarded on behalf of Asia, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had actually won the Women in Sports Award in Sports Management at the world level. This award was not only a tribute to me, but a commemoration of the efforts of all those who had contributed to the success of Qatar’s female national team. Essentially, this time was one of the most rewarding experiences.
- Interview written by Fatima Al Naimi.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.