ALGIERS (Reuters) - The Beijing Olympics mark a modest recovery for women’s sport in Algeria, where female athletes were once reviled by religious conservatives.
Runner Hassiba Boulmerka was spat at on her return to the north African country after her 1,500 meters win in Barcelona in 1992.
Religious leaders condemned the young woman from Constantine for “daring to display her nudity before the whole world.”
It was a moment of profound division as Algeria descended into years of strife between the army and Islamist rebels.
Now a new generation of female athletes are making a push to pursue sporting dreams. The Muslim country remains traumatized by the 1990s violence and by recent occasional high-profile bombings, but the overall political situation has stabilized.
The nation’s female volleyball players show just how far things could change: All Africa Games champions, they are on their way to Beijing, the first time an Algerian women’s volleyball team has competed in the world’s greatest sporting event.
“It’s a dream for every athlete,” said team captain Marimal Madani, 24, speaking breathlessly between exercises during weight training with her fellow players in an Algiers gym.
The Algerians won a qualifying tournament in January to snap up Africa’s only berth in the women’s competition in Beijing.
“It’s extraordinary. We can meet the world’s best teams. And we’re setting an example for women’s sport in Algeria.”
Algerian sport is in dire need of a boost. In the 1990s, sport of every kind took a back seat to politics. In some areas, widespread violence meant leaving home for any but the most essential tasks was simply too risky.
To make matters worse, those years saw big sporting advances by regional rivals Morocco and Tunisia.
Preoccupied by civil strife, gloomy Algeria watched its most glorious moments recede into history -- Boulmerka’s 1992 gold medal and world title in 1991, and runner Noureddine Morceli’s world records in the 3,000 meters, 1,500 meters and the mile.
Sport, particularly women’s sport, remains in a fragile state but at least the atmosphere is different these days.
“The dark years blocked us a bit. Now it’s our turn to show what we can do,” said player Nassima Benhamouda, whose presence in the squad suggests the possibilities opening up for women.
She is married with a two-year-old daughter. In local tradition, married women should be at home taking care of their offspring, not leaping about on a volleyball court.
”It’s startled everyone,“ she smiled. ”Here when a woman marries, sport’s finished. She devotes herself to her family. With me it was my in-laws who encouraged me.
“I think it’s a good thing for the others, that people understand that even a married woman with children can still play volleyball, can work, provided she organizes herself. And in fact everyone here helps -- it’s a team of women, we’re family.”
Benhamouda, who lived in France in the 1990s, thinks the Islamist opposition to women athletes was always exaggerated by the foreign media because it seemed to be such a good story.
“We live like others, we play sport, we train, it’s true we have to make more of an effort because the mentality here is not the same. And it’s true that in France there’s more freedom. But even in Algeria we can express ourselves. Algerian women can have their say.”
Mouni Abderrahim, 23, thinks building new sports facilities will gradually encourage women to get fit. “Most of the time, they’re in the house, doing nothing,” she said.
When a young woman tells her family she wants to go out to do sport, “there are those who are for and those who are against. It depends on the family,” she said.
The women wear the normal volleyball kit of shorts and vest. Captain Madani said players at national level had no problem getting parental permission to play. But “with the local teams, it’s a bit different. There are parents who prefer their children to study rather than do sport.”
Boulmerka herself is convinced attitudes are changing and that the lack of good facilities is now the main obstacle blocking a sports sector she says remains very weak.
“Tradition is not really a problem. The thinking has evolved enormously. Women’s emancipation has really progressed. Women can choose what sport they want. Parents want their kids to do sport and become champions like Boulmerka and Morceli.”
Echoing a complaint heard all over Algeria, she says the key problem is that the government has been too slow to build facilities for young people despite a petrodollar bonanza.
“Women’s sport in general is very weak,” she said. “We still need a good sports policy. There’s a lot of work to do.”
Editing by Clare Fallon