Manama: Middle East women and girls taking part in sports activities are encountering challenges not faced by their Western counterparts, a Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) research indicates.

"Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include family, religion, politics, and culture," the research said. "These issues often take place over use or nonuse of the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women."

In the "Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab" study, NU-Q sociologist Geoff Harkness and his course student Samira Islam shed light on the quiet gender revolution that has been brewing in the region in the arena of sports.

The study, published in the latest edition of Contexts Magazine, a publication of the American Sociological Association, is part of ongoing research that Harkness is conducting on women's sports participation in Qatar.

"There are a number of misconceptions about people from the Middle East, especially women," Harkness said. "One benefit of this type of sociological research is that it can help reduce some of those stereotypes and paint a more accurate picture of what life is really like here."

The research is the result of almost a year of collaboration between the NU-Q professor and his student Samira Islam, an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar who conducted interviews with female athletes and their coaches at Education City while enrolled in Harkness' sociology class.

"The students in Doha can access arenas of social life that academics cannot permeate as easily. Because Samira was a basketball player at CMUQ, she had unique insights into the world of female athletics in Doha and had established rapport with many of the players whom she interviewed and observed. That, along with her natural curiosity and tenacity, resulted in outstanding data that was key to the entire project," Harkness said.

Sports are often an empowering experience for young women in the region who get inspiration from regional sports icons, the report said.

It referred to Fatima Al Nabhani, an Omani tennis player who does not wear traditional Muslim dress during matches and Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al Ghasara, who was fully covered and wearing a hijab when she ran and won at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"Both women not only serve as role models for aspiring female athletes from the region, but also shatter Western stereotypes," the report said.

"Middle-Eastern women are often lumped together as representing a collective whole, but this could not be further from reality. Indeed, many nations in the region are populated by expatriate women from other parts of the Middle East, as well as countries such as India, Sudan, and Ethiopia, making the notion of monoculture preposterous."

According to Harkness, the diversity represented in the country's residents made the research in Qatar particularly interesting.

A single sports team can include as many countries of origin as it has players, each of whom must decide how they will dress and whether or not to participate publicly.