On the 17th day of the Olympics, at the International Shooting Centre, west of Sydney, a woman in a billowy, monochromatic cloak will raise a pistol in her right hand. She will extend that arm perfectly parallel to the ground. Peering out from fabric cowling her face, she will sight a target 10 meters away, completely still herself and squeeze off a shot.
Manijeh Kazemi, 26, is from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and she is its sole female Olympian. Shooting is one of the few sports that can be performed in hejab, the habit that every Iranian woman must wear so she might remain, as an imam has put it, "as a pearl in its shell." But her motionless pose will contrast starkly with what sports have become for women in much of the rest of the world, where unfettered female movement constitutes a social movement in the same larger, transformative sense that the Olympics themselves claim to be.
The presence of this lone Iranian woman signifies an absence, too. At a time when a record two-fifths of Olympic athletes are female, when women are competing in every sport that men do except boxing and wrestling, when IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch declares that "the problem of [women's] participation has been solved," the problem is in fact unsolved. A century after women first competed in the Olympics, a sizable percentage of the 199 nations represented in Sydney will still be without a female athlete. In 1992, 35 of the 173 contingents in Barcelona were entirely male, as were 26 of the 197 in Atlanta four years ago.
About half of those all-male Olympic teams represented Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia, where Koranic laws are so strict, stricter even than those in Iran, that women aren't permitted to drive, vote or leave the house without the permission of husbands or fathers. In Algeria, where supporters of a fundamentalist insurgency have machine-gunned to death women who wait unveiled for a bus, Hassiba Boulmerka, the gold medalist in the 1,500 meters at the '92 Games, moves in a cordon of bodyguards and carries a .38. A Saudi sports magazine once published a photograph of Boulmerka—but only after retouching sleeves onto her singlet.
In dedicating her medal to women throughout the Muslim world, Boulmerka posed the question: Where does the truth in Islam lie? With the Koranic verse that says "Respect women, who have borne you"? Or with fundamentalists like Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, who refuse to permit women to get a job, an education, simple health care, much less game?
To Boulmerka the answer is self-evident. "You cannot wear hejab on the track," she has said, "just as you cannot wear shorts in the mosque." To some mullahs in Algeria, who have denounced her "for running with naked legs in front of thousands of men," the answer is just as doctrinaire.
But the worldwide struggle of women athletes extends beyond the Islamic world. Uruguay's 15-member contingent in Sydney will include only three women, in part because machismo permeates South America and society dictates the choices women make. Botswana will send no women, for people in that African nation struggle simply to eat and stay healthy, and in Setswana culture playing sports is mostly a male prerogative. To grow up female in the U.S. and qualify for the Olympics, even as an also-ran, the odds are daunting. But in much of the rest of the world, those odds are as long as the wind.
Islamic Law, shariat, is "the road to the spring." "The road I walk is narrow," Faezeh Hashemi says. So she keeps to the path, even as modernity beckons from one side and tradition glowers from the other.
Hashemi founded a newspaper for Iranian women, only to watch conservative clerics shut it down. She won a seat in parliament, only to be voted out after one term by restive Tehranis disappointed that she refused to distance herself from her father, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the conservative who was Iran's president from 1989 to '97 She wears blue jeans under her hejab, yet when she calls for women's sports on Islamic terms she uses the revolutionary idiom that demonizes the decadent West: "Today's generation must not be kept thirsty to satiate itself from the enemy's spring."
Hashemi is a vice president of Iran's Olympic Committee and founder of the Islamic Countries Women's Games, which began in 1993 and are renewed each qua-drennium. Men are permitted to watch the opening ceremonies and such demure events as chess, riding and shooting, all of which can be disputed in hejab. For volleyball and basketball, men are banned and hejab comes off.