Balsam and Lulwa Al-Ayoub are empowering young girls in the Gulf region by proving that women can work in the same arenas as men and excel. They are professional fencers and two of the few women dedicated to professional sports in the Gulf region, where laws and traditions inhibit girls from competing in sports. By competing in international tournaments and mentoring young female athletes, Balsam and Lulwa are showcasing women's talent and strength to a society that has traditionally confined women to the home. By lobbying for the amendment of the professional sports law which does not consider women athletes, they are opening the gates for others.
The New Idea
Women in the Gulf are not allowed to become professional athletes, and in some countries, they are not even allowed to play sports. Lulwa and Balsam are deconstructing these taboos in the Gulf area by using sport to change the lives of Arab women. Through the sport of fencing, Al-Ayoub sisters are literally “cutting through” society’s constraints. By becoming active in sports, they believe girls will grow proud, strong, fearless and expressive no matter what their ultimate life’s goal.
Balsam & Lulwa are empowering women in the Gulf through a strategy based on three components. First, through their success in their field, they are setting an example as role models for many girls in Kuwait. They use their status for good by serving as mentors to aspiring fencers, whom they work to empower to compete in the same arenas as men. Second, they are creating a new perception of women as leaders and trainers, as they train young boys and girls on fencing. Third, they are promoting sports among young girls in schools, in order to break the walls of women’s social exclusion. The Al-Ayoub sisters’ efforts motivate and inspire girls to demand more involvement in all walks of life.
In contrast to other regional programs for women empowerment that utilize more conventional approaches like awareness-raising, the Al-Ayoub sisters’ strategy is comprised of a set of modules that break down social taboos, instill the notion of female leadership, and promote greater inclusion of women. As athletes, Al-Ayoub sisters are concerned with spreading the fencing culture among the younger generation, advocating for professional women athletes’ rights, and promoting social responsibility among athletes. They believe that being professional athletes in a world of male athletes will open doors for other females to join all kind of sports and thus be empowered.
Although there are very few COs in Kuwait, most if not all, are government controlled and funded. Al-Ayoub sisters realized that for their idea to succeed and spread, they have to ensure freedom, independence and sustainability. They did not want to associate their entrepreneurial idea for empowering girls and women to traditional and conservative perception of COs in the region. To date, they have managed to raise funds to sponsor themselves and their pupils. They themselves contributed and sponsored tournaments.
Gender empowerment has always been a controversial issue in the Middle East, and even more so in the Gulf Peninsula. However, in recent years, women traditionally confined to the home are now venturing into worlds they had previously known little about, and started to play active roles in society. Whether through sports, economic contribution or political participation, Gulf women are increasingly working alongside men in banks, universities and public offices. At the same time, age-old traditions, unconstitutional laws, and lack of public awareness about the role of women still hold sway, and women living in the Gulf face continued repression.
Expanded education is believed to be the start of women demonstrating their rights in the Gulf. Kuwaitis began to include girls in education as early as the 1930s, and according to the UNDP Arab Human Development Report from 2005, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have a greater number of women registered in higher education than men. As a result, women’s involvement in the labor force has also increased greatly in past years. In Kuwait in 2003, women constituted nearly 40% of the country’s labor force, allowing women to become a part of public life and take part in most activities in the country. Nevertheless, educated and professional women still face social and legal obstacles that prevent them from achieving full emancipation. Because of this, participation in sports still remains a distant hope for many female professional athletes.
Women’s participation in sports has come a long way, yet the present numbers of professional female athletes still remain unsatisfactory. In preparation for the Beijing Olympics, Olympic committees were set up across all the nations to train sportspersons and fund their activities. Accordingly, the UAE, Oman and Bahraini women made their debut, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait still withheld this right, the latter claiming that men would have a better chance at competing.
An even bigger obstacle facing the sportswomen of Kuwait, other than the persisting paternalistic mentalities, is that under the law the label “professional sportswomen” does not exist. Nonetheless, the legal status of both sportsmen and sportswomen is clearly defined under International, European and Belgian National and Regional Law. Yet the Kuwaiti Fencing Federation does not exercise its role in providing a chance for women to represent their country abroad and raise their flags of victory. Women are not receiving the same efforts invested in men and thus are not able to reach their full potential, although they have the incentive to break all boundaries.
Sportswomen across the MENA region have progressed at different speeds. For example, in Egypt, professional women wrestlers have begun calling for serious investment and funding. This stands in stark contrast to Kuwait where women cannot even carry the “professional sportswomen” status. Needless to say, sports still remain a distant hope for many female athletes who cannot get the government’s recognition for their achievements, or the society's.
Balsam and Lulwa empower women in the Gulf through the sport of fencing. In addition to serving as role models and mentors to other girls wishing to become professional fencers, they also are creating a new identity for women as leaders and trainers. As a part of their work, they also promote sports among young girls in schools, in order to reduce women's exclusion from sports.
By competing in international tournaments, Balsam and Lulwa are showcasing women's talent and strength to a society that has traditionally confined women to the household, far from arenas where men work and compete. The Al-Ayoub sisters are also among the few Kuwaiti women entrepreneurs, having started up a sporting event management company, Touché, to organize fencing training camps and tournaments. Through their organization, Balsam and Lulwa advocate for better and more equal sports and increased opportunities for Kuwaiti girls. On a political level, they are also lobbying with the Kuwaiti government to modify professional sports law which currently does not consider women as professional athletes thus preventing them from participating in championships under Kuwait's flag.
Currently, the sisters are coaching and providing mentorship to two young girls to become professional fencers: Mariouma Al Fahd and Dalal El Shaye’. During this time, these young women have undergone a dramatic transformation, becoming more opinionated and more mature than their classmates. Balsam and Lulwa plan to provide mentorship to ten more young girls in the next five years. The sisters have also started a pilot program introducing fencing as an extracurricular activity in one school, which has provided space for training while Balsam and Lulwa have donated fencing equipment and gear that the students will use. The program introduces fencing as a sport and as an art, and trains girls and boys together. The pilot will be replicated in three other schools in Kuwait during the next five years.
Moreover, the Al-Ayoub sisters have managed to bring increased respect for Arab female athletes, by participating in an unprecedented initiative in the Arab World. Balsam and Lulwa delivered a training directed to senior men occupying managerial posts in the corporate sector, as part of their collaboration with one of their sponsors. The training, “From Championship to Leadership,” introduced in a non-traditional way the notion of leadership by building on Balsam and Lulwa's triumph over the hurdles they faced in their competitions and how those can apply in the corporate world.
Balsam and Lulwa are currently laying the foundations for a sports academy that will cater to the needs of the female athletic community in Kuwait, both Kuwaitis and foreign nationals, thereby addressing the inequities that Kuwaiti and foreign women are traditionally subjected to. They are also advocating for the amendment of the professional sports law to consider female athletes and to grant both male and female athletes more comprehensive support.
Al-Ayoub sisters are replicating their model of empowerment in Dubai, and are constantly networking with activists concerned with women empowerment in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries as they are invited to participate in events and conferences concerned with women’s rights. Al-Ayoub sisters wish to apply their formula for gender empowerment through sports in all countries of the region, and share their experience with others who wish to apply using other tools for gender empowerment.
Balsam and Lulwa grew up in an athletic family that believed in sports as tool for self development. The sisters were encouraged to pick a sport from an early age by their father, a devoted football player and swimmer, and their mother a physical education teacher. In addition to constantly encouraging their girls to pursue a sport, her parents took her and her siblings on road trips to Eastern and Western Europe, to more and less privileged places, so they could learn to appreciate diversity and broaden their horizons. Although they grew up with a conservative background, they studied abroad and competed in basketball and volleyball tournaments throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Remembering how they started fencing, Lulwa and Balsam always say that the sword chose them before they chose it. It all began when their mother dropped them at Alfatat, a women’s sporting club in Kuwait to choose a sport, where they were approached by a lady who was forming a female fencing team for an upcoming competition. Thirteen years later, Balsam and Lulwa are proud fencers and strong women. Fencing, being more of an art than a sport, involving a wide range of tools and techniques, has taught the Al-Ayoub sisters perseverance, leadership skills, improved their ability to focus on what’s important in life, equipped them with analytical thinking, strengthened their decision making abilities, and improved their ability to utilize time most effectively.
While Balsam has a degree in Physical Education, Lulwa has a degree in Linguistics and Translation and is back in Kuwait after spending nine years in Spain and a year in Hungary. Both have ventured into new fields such as fundraising, event organizing, lobbying and training, thus bringing wider recognition to women in a culture where even educated women choose to be homemakers and stay away from the labor market. She has also joined the ranks of the few women entrepreneurs in Kuwait, by establishing their own sports events management company, Touché.
Balsam currently lives in Kuwait with her husband, who has supported her professional fencing career for nine years. She balances her life as a wife, mother to two-year-old Adnan, and her career as a professional athlete.