The most prominent feature of women's sport in the Arab sector in recent years has been the development of walking groups, says Shaqer Muasi, sports editor at the Taibeh-based Panorama newspaper and panet.co.il website. Muasi is referring to the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Arab women who get together, primarily in the evenings, and walk in groups for a few kilometers around their neighborhoods.

According to Muasi, "These groups get together in almost all of the villages in the Triangle and Galilee. Anyone driving along the roads close to the Arab villages cannot help but notice the phenomenon." Muasi says the women can be seen walking in pairs or larger groups along the side of the roads - women of all ages, who meet a few times a week and walk together at a quick pace for an hour or so.

'It's easier today'

Olympic criteria for this field of sport have yet to be set, of course, and group walking will, in all likelihood, remain a sport for the masses; but Muasi believes the phenomenon has far-reaching implications for Arab society in general, and may even significantly influence women's sport in the sector. On the whole, sport in Israel is relatively shortchanged when compared to resources the state invests in other areas. Women's sport is even more hard done by. Ipso facto, women's sport in the Arab sector is the worst affected of all.

Based on most estimates, and in relation to their proportion of the population, the number of female Arab athletes in Israel is far lower than their Jewish counterparts. Very few Israeli-Arab women have made significant achievements in sport, with many sporting disciplines completely devoid of Arab women at all. Many factors have contributed to this reality - some related to the establishment, and some to the structure and values of Arab society itself that frown upon female athletes.

"Up until a short while ago, sport was off the scale," says athlete Duaa Suliman Khatib, 38, who recently retired from competition and now serves as a coach for the Ahi Nazareth athletics teams. Over her career, Khatib won a number of middle distance national titles, and still holds the U-23 Israeli record for the 2,000 meters.

Khatib's story, like that of the handful of Arab women athletes who have managed to make a name for themselves in recent years, does not reflect the reality. These athletes were forced to break down barriers, rebel against tradition, and sometimes even end up at odds with their families, just for the sake of pursuing a sports career. This may be why, when it comes to team sports, the presence of Arab women is almost nonexistent.

As in every society, repressing tradition works better on groups. As a result, individuals who are also willing to pay the personal price have a better chance of success. According to Khatib, "It's easier today. Awareness of the need to maintain one's health and body, and the positive influences of exercise is a lot higher than in the past. Economic advancement in the Arab sector has also had a significant effect, and many of the stigmas and fears have disappeared. Parents are no longer afraid to send their young girls to training. They trust in the coaching staff and are very involved."

Ahlam Shalabi, 23, a soccer referee and gym teacher, also testifies to the increasing involvement of women in sport in the Arab sector. "After school activities, participation in karate classes, aerobic dancing, or exercise in the gym - which were once completely out of bounds for women - are becoming more and more legitimate and popular," she says.

The upswing is whetting the appetite, Shalabi says. "Personal awareness is leading to collective awareness and the desire to participate," she says. "Just recently, we established women's volleyball and basketball teams in Iksal, just south of Nazareth. It's only a start and we still have lots to learn, but it went through without controversy and is even receiving encouragement from large sections of the community. It shows there is a future for women's sport in the Arab sector."

Shining example of change

Shalabi graduated recently from the Wingate Institute of Physical Education and Sport, and began her refereeing career last season. For now, she officiates only at children's and youth games, but has her sights set on the Premier League. And although Shalabi, in many respects, represents the most downtrodden sector of modern Israeli society, she remains optimistic. "Let them judge me on my performances," she says.

Shalabi, whose father was a soccer player and whose attraction to sport was encouraged and supported at home, says she is on a mission: "There is a lot of material with which to work," she says. "We are seeing the emergence of a generation that is no longer willing to be discriminated against. Sport is a means of both self-expression and collective expression for the achievement of change and equality."

The Bnot Sakhnin women's soccer team, one of the most prominent standard-bearers in the field of Arab women's sport in Israel, is a shining example of this change, Shalabi says. The team was established some 10 years ago by club chairman Hamid Ganaim and is seen as the little sister of the men's team, Bnei Sakhnin.

The team has not enjoyed much success in the league yet, but has surprisingly won widespread support in the city, and now has a dedicated fan base unmatched by any other team in the league. This legitimacy has also led to the establishment of a women's volleyball team in the city, but the move has not encouraged similar actions in other Arab communities. "It's the start of a process," Shalabi says, adding that she expects more teams to be formed in the near future.

"Awareness is growing, but there is also a need for additional funding," says Khatib, who also serves on the Israel Athletic Association management committee. "To close the gap," Khatib says, "we will need a lot more than goodwill and awareness."

According to Khatib, "If we check the achievements of Arab girls in athletics in relation to their Jewish counterparts, we find no gap at all up until the age of 16. The difference stands out on the senior level. In general, one can say that the entire field of athletics in Israel is insufficiently funded. Because the athletes do not get the financial support, very few manage to remain in the field. And fewer still are the women who can afford to continue to train, raise a family and also provide a livelihood. And in the Arab sector in particular, this is a far greater problem.

"In addition, to train seriously, on a senior level, there is a need for suitable facilities and infrastructure," Khatib continues. "There isn't a single athletics stadium in the entire Arab sector - and I am not even going into the subject of training aids such as standard hurdles, or long jump or high jump facilities. At present, for example, there are a number of athletes in our team with potential. There is a 14-year-old girl who is an excellent sprinter. And there is Juman Jubran, who recently won the national long jump title. She is also a gifted student and her parents are very supportive.

"Such things didn't exist in the Arab sector in the past. We need to preserve them , nurture them and allow them the optimal conditions to develop and grow."

For his part, Muasi says: "As soon as the mothers began walking, the young girls were given the legitimacy to run." As far as Muasi is concerned, this mindset change is beginning to bear fruit.

"Until now, very few Arab women athletes made significant achievements in sport, but the change is already taking place," he says. "And in sport, after all, miracles don't happen in an instant. There is a need for ongoing hard work. Egypt's Facebook revolution didn't happen overnight. The voices calling for progress and democratization were rustling for months before it took place."