Boccia’s inclusion at Paralympics is more than just a sport

The Paralympics are off to a tremendous start in Rio. At the 2016 Games, there is considerable presence of female athletes. There are approximately 1,650 women participating in over 530 events.
Anyone who loves sports and is thirsty for information about female sheroes from around the world, the 2016 Paralympic Games are the perfect place to enjoy sport and cheer on different athletes. And perhaps to learn about more sports.

Of those the incredible women, there is one particular athlete that I intend to cheer for.

Nurul Taha is representing Singapore and her first competition begins Saturday. This is her second time at the Paralympics Games. She competes in one of the two sports exclusive to the Paralympic Games: Boccia.

When I first heard of Boccia, a sport that requires precision, focus, concentration and a set of balls, it definitely had my attention.

When I found out how many para-athletes from around the world participate and in mixed gender Boccia teams, I got even more excited. Boccia requires a sharp combination of mental acuity and skill. The objective is to place the balls on a ramp and get them to hit the target (called a jack). The interesting thing is that the word ‘boccia’ was derived from Latin to mean “boss”. Quite appropriate in Taha’s case. She has spinal muscular atrophy and started her training in 2004. Taha hasn’t looked back.

Boccia was first introduced as a sport for athletes that had severe disabilities and it evolved to offer different classifications so it includes many Persons with Disabilities (PWD).
Taha plays as part of a mixed pairs team – with fellow Singaporean Sze Ning Toh- and alone in the mixed individual category. Boccia is one of the few sports where men and women play against, and with, each other.

There are four classes of Boccia (BC1, BC2, BC3 and BC4) and athletes compete in the category that best suits their functional ability. BC1 allows for limited assistance from another person. BC3 class permits assistive devices and sports assistants as the athletes have high support needs. The sports assistant will line up the balls but direction, placement and final push come from the para-athlete.

Taha’s sister Sya is her personal sports assistant. Sya and I are both contributors to Muslimah Media Watch, a Muslim Feminist blog site, and we are friends. Sya does a lot of work educating people on the perils of ableism. It is through her that I found out about Boccia. It is also where I learned how not to write about PWDs. When writing of a PWD, and particularly a para-athlete, it must be done in a manner that is befitting their skill and respectful to their identity.

Taha is an identifiable Muslim woman who wears a traditional Muslim headscarf (hijab). Fortunately, Boccia International Sports Federation, the governing body of the sport, permit athletes to wear headscarves. So Taha had no problem choosing to wear a hijab and remain involved in her sport.

This is relevant because there are so many women who still struggle with wanting to be included by sports federations who have exclusionary policies regarding headscarves that affect Muslim women.

I was happy to find information on Muslim majority countries and their Paralympic delegations. There is definitely a history of Muslim women having success at the Paralympic Games. But just as able-bodied female athletes get unnecessary and unwarranted attention for their clothing choices, would this be exacerbated if the athlete is not only a woman of color and an identifiable Muslim but also a PWD? Another huge challenge would be the obvious lack of interest by mainstream sports media; para-athletes of color are often ignored. Sya wrote about her observations of London 2012 Paraylmpic Games media coverage and Muslim para-athletes:

“The Paralympics has always received less coverage than the Olympics, so it makes sense that Muslim Paralympians receive proportionally less coverage than Muslim Olympians… But what I find fascinating is that the coverage of Muslim Olympians has been almost exclusively oriented towards hijabis, whereas coverage of Muslim Paralympians is practically non-existent (with the exemption of the Jordanian team sexual assault charges and the Bosnian sitting volleyball team). Muslimah Paralympians, situated in the intersection of gender, religion and disability, represent a slice of society that are celebrities only for disabled Muslims (or Orientalists that view being Muslim/a woman/disabled as triple oppression), and are barely covered in mainstream media.”

The intersections of sexism, racism and ableism collide when we look at appropriate media coverage and general treatment of para-athletes despite the incredible skill we witness.
Sya told me in an e-mail that Nurul receives a lot of ableist comments. “She especially hates [the word] ‘inspiration’,” Sya wrote. It is important to understand and implement language that is acceptable to para-athletes. If one doesn’t know, they can do the research. Make the effort.

[More from Excelle Sports: Paralympic roundup: Day 1]

Sya spoke of a situation that occurred at an international competition.

“Generally athletes and competition partners in boccia are really nice to each other [people from other sports remark on it] but one unintentionally racist incident I remember happened a few months ago. We were exchanging pins with opponent when the male coach [older, white man] asks me if Nurul can “accept [the pin] from a man”. I told him yes, why don’t you ask her?”

The assumption here was that because Nurul was wearing hijab, she could not interact with a man. Secondly, that she was unable to speak for herself.
Female para-athletes don’t simply challenge society’s ableist notion of what an athlete can be, they blast ahead rolling over those assumptions. Many para-athletes, like Taha, wear different hats- or hijabs in her case.

Not only is Taha a professional boccia player but she has a degree in accountancy and is currently on unpaid leave from her position as government tax auditor. In addition, Taha is a sports activist who advocates for the rights of PWD. She does a tremendous amount of work with the Singapore Disability Sports Council and mentors youth.

In a recent interview with The Strait Times, Taha explained why she is an obvious role-model for young people with disabilities. “They get quite excited when I share my experiences with them. When they see that I can play sports and travel, I think that’s something they also want to experience for themselves. So I hope that through the sharing of my experiences, the kids become more open to options and are more willing to try new things.”

Sya and Nurul going to opening ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Sya Taha)
Sya and Nurul going to opening ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Sya Taha)

This year Taha is campaigning to be part of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletes Council. Elections will be held during the Paralympic Games in Rio and all athletes are eligible to vote.

She brilliantly articulates on issues of ableism and discrimination in her community and that she faces.

When she isn’t working or training as a full-time athlete, she is learning Korean so she can communicate with Korean boccia players- who are known in boccia circles to be the team to beat. And there are many more stories of phenomenal female para-athletes like Nurul Taha.

Over one quarter of all 4,344 Paralympians are women but will Paralympic coverage be sufficient? Much of the competitions I am interested in watching will not be aired live on North American sports networks- so I intend to use my laptop to watch online via livestream. Of the 159 nations being represented, there will certainly be opportunities to celebrate (un)veiled Muslim women and many more para-athletes from all over the world in their glory.

In addition to the powerlifting, swimming, women’s wheelchair basketball (obviously, I’m rooting for Team Canada- currently ranked No. 1 in the world) I look forward to Boccia and Goalball that are incredibly exciting and only available to watch at tournaments for para-athletes.

As Shane Thomas poignantly writes, “It’s not ‘inspiration porn’ for the able-bodied, and no Paralympian needs a condescending pat on the head for performing. The Paralympics isn’t great sport with caveats. It’s great sport. The Paralympians aren’t the lucky ones for getting to compete on a worldwide platform. We’re the lucky ones who get to watch them.”

Supporting women in sports means supporting all women in sports. Cheering for their triumphs is glorious and invigorating. They don’t just look like athletes, they are the embodiment of what sport should be- for all women.

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