The State of Qatar aspires to reach a high stature in sports, and it has all the talents that qualify it to be so. Its recent success in hosting tournaments and winning medals are testaments to the State’s and its athletes’ efforts in this field. Such developments have encouraged women to venture into all types of sports. In this interview, we tell the story of Amal Mohamed, a courageous young woman who entered a field that no other Qatari woman had entered before by becoming the first Qatari woman to get certified by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to become a referee. With her achievements, she hopes to open the door for more Qatari women to explore the field of basketball and become a part of it. So, Who is Amal Mohamed Saleh?
I am the captain of the women’s national basketball team, and I have been playing basketball for nearly 13 years. In 2018, I became the first Qatari woman to become a referee and get certified by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) 3×3 Referee Committee. After becoming a referee, I was nominated to referee many international and local matches for men and women. For example, in 2020, I judged the local men’s league in Qatar, and I was a referee on an official mission to Oman in the men’s league because of the shortage of referees. Furthermore, I refereed in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Oman. I represented Qatar in the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) Beach Games in 2019 and in the Doha Open Masters Championship 3×3. I consider all these as outstanding achievements. I also had the honor of meeting Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani, and His Highness Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. They were proud to see that a Qatari woman has become an international referee.
Have you always preferred playing basketball?
In the beginning, I used to play different sports. I used to play volleyball and basketball in school. However, my passion was to play Kung Fu, but it was not offered at that time. So, I registered for a basketball team and when I registered in the club, I did not know that it was for the national team as I thought it was just a summer activity after school. I was playing volleyball at first, but the basketball team needed more players, so I decided to join them. The difference between a school sports team and a national team, or a club team, is the participation in boot camps. Boot camps prepare players physically, and that is where I understood that we are a national team. There were fifty or sixty girls in the camp, but only 12 players got nominated to be a part of the team that will represent Qatar internationally. However, I took the final decision to become a professional in basketball based on my brothers’ advice. They adviced me to choose one team game and put all my effort in it. So, I chose basketball or perhaps, it chose me because of my height, level at the gameplay, and my way of thinking.
Do you see yourself as a referee or a basketball player?
I am both because a referee and a player need the same level of physical fitness. They both require the same amount of physical activity during the game. However, there is a big difference between the role of a player and the referee. The referee must know all the rules and stay updated on regulations. Furthermore, referees must stay in constant contact with the FIBA. However, as a player, my roles and responsibilities are limited; a player is simply representing their country. The administration is responsible for the rest of the matters. As a player, I would only focus on rank and winning. However, I decided to focus on only refereeing, because playing both roles can affect the player negatively. For example, I had a difficult time when I participated as a player in the Gulf Cup Basketball Tournament in 2019. I was confused as I was playing because, although I was a player, mentally, I was thinking like a referee.
What is your role as the captain of the national team?
I have been the captain for seven years. Most of the captain’s responsibilities start when the team plays abroad. The captain is responsible for the players and has to make sure that they are psychologically, physically, and mentally prepared. During the matches, the captain is in charge of talking to the referee and objecting to decisions when needed. The captain also helps the coach to plan at the time of the match. If a player gets nervous during the match, it is the captain’s responsibility to take care of that player. Furthermore, the captain has to attend meetings with the administration. So, due to the multi-tasking nature of captain’s job, the captain must be patient and thinks of the best way to represent their country. The main difference between a player and a Capitan is that captains have more responsibilities. The captain is responsible for the team, dealing with the administration, expressing the players’ problems. Therefore, it is vital that a captain has the trust of both the players and administration. These skills are not easy to come by, but thanks to Allah, my coach guided me through it. We used to do sports leadership workshops, and I attended meetings with the administration and other teams. They helped me learn many skills, including how to talk to management and coaches and communicate my message effectively to others.
How was your journey in sports as a professional player?
It was a journey full of achievements, but I faced some challenges as a female referee. Some said that society would not accept a woman as a referee, but I wanted to take on the challenge and build my confidence. It took me four years to achieve my ambition to represent the State of Qatar as well as I wanted. Even in the FIBA, it was the first time they saw a referee wearing the referee uniform in a modest way. When I was sent to Malaysia to referee a tournament, they said that it was the first time they saw a woman from the Gulf wearing the referee uniform in a modest fashion. The Islamic community can represent itself with its own traditions, customs, and modest clothing. Change may be slow, but it is possible.
What do you think of women’s sports in the Arab world?
There are some challenges in the Gulf when it comes to women’s sports. The first issue is the lack of female sports advisors. Some administrators do not know about women’s hormones and the psychological changes that she can go through or how they feel when entering the court. I want to educate the female players about the feelings that they may experience during the transition from a regular player to a professional one, but there must be someone to explain this information. For example, a female player may be physically and psychologically ready to play, but fear overcomes her when she enters the field. Also, the experience of being a professional player might be new for some of these women. To tackle this problem, I made a set of recommendations in my master’s thesis, and hopefully, some of the recommendations will be implemented soon. Some countries and female players in the Qatar Volleyball Federation have already requested a copy of my master’s thesis to help them improve the status of women in sports.
How was your educational journey up to receiving your master’s degree?
I used to play basketball in school, and in those days, there was no major called Sports Administration. So, I decided to major in medicine because the country needs more people in that field. Physiotherapy was not available in Qatar, and if a player got injured in matches, I would have the experience to help them. Previously, I was an employee at Hamad Medical Corporation’s Department of General Surgery in general nursing, but I wanted to focus on professionalism in basketball and sports. When Qatar University introduced a bachelor’s degree in Sports Administration for Sports Sciences, I joined the program and graduated in 2017. Qatar has changed after the 2006 Asian Games, specifically in the field of women’s sports. Qatar’s plans to develop the sports field and host tournaments and the World Cup in 2022 encouraged me to study. The bachelor’s degree was a challenge. However, changing my major from nursing to sports helped me understand sports administration and how to attract and organize world championships. Also, it helped me get nominated to be an international referee due to my experiences in this field. After that, I decided to obtain a master’s degree from Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar Foundation, which I graduated from in 2021. During my bachelor’s degree, the focus was on studying management, and my graduation project was about increasing women’s awareness, about aging and how they can maintain their health. It was not related to refereeing. I was thinking about educating women regarding the importance of sports as the age. We did several workshops. After a period of refereeing, I noticed that some of the obstacles that women face are not due simply from society but are actually derived from bad sports administration. So, I started to dig deeper into the matter, which led me to do a Master’s. While doing my master’s, I had many meetings with people from different countries. I got to know many people, businesswomen, and even ministers, including Dr. Nasser Al-Assiri from Oman, my advisor and supporter in the sports world. I prepared a questionnaire that I conducted in a number of the Gulf countries to uncover the challenges faced by Arab women in sports. Through the conversations I had with the women I met and based on the questionnaire results, I concluded that we all face similar obstacles.
Can you tell us more about the master’s thesis?
My master’s thesis was about the challenges faced by sportswomen in Gulf and how to overcome them. I traveled to most of the Gulf countries and collected information from ministries and people. Through the questionnaire, I noticed that the obstacles are similar in all Gulf countries. The obstacles that I discovered included the lack of transportation, clubs, and administration. In addition to those, customs and traditions play a role in women’s participation in sports. For example, there was a women’s futsal team, and I believe that if they participated in international tournaments, they could win. Still, the customs and traditions of society prevent them from participating. Therefore, the Gulf countries must cooperate to overcome these obstacles. Dr. Nasser Al-Assiri from the Sultanate of Oman, a professor in sports psychology, helped me spread awareness regarding women’s ability to practice sports and coordinate between family and sports. We organized many sports workshops and cultural sports dialogues. Moreover, women need the support of men, whether it is their father, brother, husband, or teacher, and I am grateful for men who help and support women to reach their goals.
Do you feel that the sports field in Qatar changed over the years?
Qatar has developed in sports and started to encourage women in this field. In the past, the Qatar Women’s Sports Committee used to call female athletes “girls.” However, some of the players got married, became mothers, and returned to playing sports, so they changed the name to “women.” The change from girls to women in the title was a monumental event. Furthermore, women have started to occupy high positions. Today, women represent the State and support their men counterparts, especially in sports, which began to grow rapidly, especially in Qatar. The Qatar Olympic Committee, the Qatari Women’s Sports Committee, my university, my major, and my work helped me develop in this field and understand how to spread awareness about sports. Social networking sites did not exist before, but now spreading awareness became easier thanks to those sites. I feel happy when I see women representing Qatar. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser was one of the important and inspiring women to me and to many others. Also, I would like to thank the President of the Women’s Sports Committee, Mrs. Lolwa Al-Marri, for her support.
Can you tell us about a special memory in your life?
I have a beautiful but painful memory. It is about a law against the hijab. In the past, we couldn’t participate in tournaments beyond the Arab Basketball Club Championship. If a team wins first in the Gulf Club Basketball Championship, they would qualify for the Arab Championships. If they win the championship, they would qualify for the Asian Women’s Basketball Championship, and then they would qualify for the Women’s Basketball World Cup. However, FIBA had a law against the hijab. So when we qualified for the Asian Championship in 2014 we were disqualified as soon as we entered the basketball court because of our hijab. We came back to Qatar and launched a global campaign for over three years, during which we learned that Qatar was not the only country to be denied from playing in basketball tournaments because of the hijab. No woman wearing the hijab could participate, and you cannot become an international referee if you wear the hijab. We launched campaigns online and on social networking sites, and there was support from many countries, including Kuwait, the United States, and Turkey. We asked them why this law was only applied in basketball. The answer they gave was that they could not change this law in basketball because it is a high contact sport, and it causes many injuries. However, sports such as Judo and Karate are also high contact sports, but the players can wear a hijab in the competitions. Due to the many emails and discussions between Qatar and the FIBA, a FIBA official came to Qatar in 2017 to learn about the hijab. After learning about the hijab and the way it is wrapped, he saw that it is harmless, and he said that he did not expect it to be that way since no one explained it to him before. The law was changed in 2018, which allowed us to participate in the first Asian Championship in the same year in Mongolia. Later, a pro-hijab law was decided to allow women wearing the hijab to obtain the certification from FIBA. In 2018, I got the certificate to be a referee. This experience affected me. Although it was a painful experience, it was a global achievement for me. We cooperated with several countries to change one law, which even helped the Sikhs to participate. I believe that sports have no religion, and that an athlete should be judged based on their skills and not according to their customs, traditions, or religion. This change in laws is evidence that everything is subject to change.
In your opinion, how can we help improve women’s status in sports?
The State should open many new sports and cultural clubs for women in every area. If such clubs cannot be opened, the current clubs in Qatar should provide women-only spaces. I put this recommendation in my master’s thesis. We communicated with Al-Rayyan Club, and they will open a section for women soon. We also requested special entrances and buses for women to be able to participate and exercise. Al-Ahli Club and Umm Salal Club have implemented this request as well. However, we must educate society about the importance of having such places for women.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Do not let fear stop you from going into the sports industry. It is true that customs and traditions exist, but do not let fear overcome you when someone tells you that participating in sports is difficult. We want to show our society that we are the best representatives of Qatar’s women in international forums. Women can achieve a lot in cultural, scientific, sports, and literary fields. Also, I would like to thank everyone who supported me in my sports career. I wouldn’t hold such a position without the support of well-known leaders such as Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani, who supported Qatari women in leaving a mark in the sports world, including mixed refereeing. Our mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, has proven her support for women by establishing the Qatar Women’s Sports Committee, which aims to support female Qatari champions in being a part of various sports. Lastly, I would like to thank the woman leading this path: Mrs. Lolwa Al-Marri. I wish my country, Qatar, and the Qatar Women’s Sports Committee all success.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.