It is hardly surprising that women actively participate in sports — even in the North Caucasus, a Muslim-majority region where religion dominates people’s daily lives. But as a rule here, public opinion plays an essential role in all aspects of life, including sports. Yet, recently young women started to make choices in favor of their hobbies.
There are many female sports stars who come from the area: hand-to-hand combat fighters Malika Shakhidova and Mariam Aldamova, wrestlers Zamira Rakhmanova and Saneit Ganachuyeva, Olympic fencing champion Aida Shanayeva, weightlifter Tima Turiyeva, martial artist Maria Sobol, boxer Zemfira Magomedaliyeva, rugby player Baizat Khamidova, and many others. They have all successfully defended the honor of their republics and their country in prestigious European and world championships.
In some places, such as Chechnya, women’s sport has been growing: gyms are being built, and sports classes and camps are being set up. “It has been two years since girls have started to go in for artistic gymnastics,” said Sultan Makhtamerzayev, Chechnya’s deputy minister of sports. “Our girls play volleyball and basketball, and do judo and kyokushin karate. However, for the time being, few Chechen female athletes participate in national and international competitions.”
The Stavropol region has always been proud of its female handball players, including: Olympic champion and multiple world champion Yulia Safina, world champion Natalia Tsygankova, World Universiade champions Tatiana Karpenia and Vera Samoilova, and many Soviet Masters of Sports.
“Besides handball, girls play basketball professionally. We have a strong acrobatics school as well that raised several world and European champions; there is development in track and field and swimming” a representative from the Stavropol Regional Ministry of Sports said.
As for North Ossetia, its number-one female athlete is Aida Shanayeva, the Olympic fencing champion. Yana Alborova has also achieved great results in the sport; she is a three-time winner of the European championship and other prestigious competitions.
“We are good at weightlifting: Tima Turiyeva won the World Championship in 2013. Women’s wrestling has been gathering steam. We have the Karate World Champion Maria Sobol,” the Ministry of Sports of North Ossetia reported.
The ministry representative added that women have started to do sports that do not seem traditional for North Ossetia, such as figure skating. Dina Khapsayeva recently reached the qualifying standard of “master of sports” in figure skating; she became the first female athlete in North Ossetia to do that.
Dagestani women stand out for various martial arts: wrestling, judo, boxing, wushu sanda, karate and taekwondo. One of the most famous sportswomen is the Russia and World Box Champion Zemfira Magomedaliyeva. Before she came to boxing, she did weightlifting and mixed martial arts. While studying at university, she did shot put and then came to mixed martial arts in order to lose weight. However, she did not tell her parents about her enthusiasm for sports at first — she was afraid that they would not understand.
“They live in a village. When I told my mom about fighting, she was really worried for me; she was scared that I could be beaten. She said, ‘Don’t do it!’ But my father was fine with it; he loves sports.”
In the Caucasus, traditional family values are a priority and girls get married early. Therefore, every female athlete faces a choice — either a family or a career in sports. “I believe that the top priority for our Dagestani women is to get married. Only three out of a hundred want to build their own career; the rest think only of marriage,” Magomedaliyeva said.
She got married herself a few years ago and gave birth to a baby in the fall of 2017 — but decided to return to sport. Especially since her husband was fully supportive of her.
Makhlukhanum Murzayeva — who was a two-time Soviet champion in archery, a medalist at the European and World Championships, a winner of 12 international competitions and a participant in the 1996 Olympics — became an archery coach. She says she became interested in sports after watching the 1980 Olympics. “I watched archery on TV. All the participants dressed in white clothes and shot arrows against a green background; I was so impressed by it,” she said.
That was how Murzayeva, who was only a school student at the time, found herself at one of the Makhachkala stadiums in an archery class. Her father, who was interested in sports, took her there. Her athletic career lasted 17 years and was quite successful. Now she trains other young women.
“About 20 girls come to my class regularly. There are some quite religious, covered-up girls who come and want to learn archery. Not all of them succeed, and not all the families are sympathetic to a hobby like that.” She believes it has to do with the Caucasian mindset.
The rugby player Baizat Khamidova is sure that the opinion “women don’t belong in sports” is an outdated stereotype, but there is another problem as she sees it: “The main issue in women’s sport is that few people encourage girls to take sport classes at a young age. Girls usually take up sports at the age of 14–15. For example, I started doing sports professionally at the age of 17 and even then track and field,” she said.
Rugby has started getting popular in Dagestan in the last 10 years. At first it was popular only among boys, but then girls followed too. Khamidova came to a rugby class after her elder sister Navrat. Before that, the girls did sprinting. Some players from the Dagestan women’s rugby team, including the Khamidova sisters, are members of the Russian national rugby team.
Speaking on coming to rugby, Khamidova says that in Dagestan there was no other alternative. “I had no other choice in Dagestan; if I had not lived in the Caucasus, I might have chosen football,” she said with a smile. She is acknowledged as one of the world’s top female rugby players by the female rugby website Scrum Queens.
Alexander Makarov, a director of the Republican Olympic Reserve Junior Sports School No. 2 (and a former football player himself) holds up his hands in dismay while answering a question about why Dagestan has no established women’s football team.
“You can say that girls do not take up football in Dagestan. Why? It likely has to do with public opinion: Muslim girls supposedly don’t play football. However, they do play in Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq. And in Dagestan they do not. Somehow, a belief developed that if a girl plays football, it is not serious,” says Markarov, a former football player and now a coach.
He draws attention to the following aspect as well: in Dagestani society, women’s football is not promoted enough. However, in his view, it has many advantages over martial arts, even from an aesthetic perspective. “Football is a beautiful sport, and it is not any worse (it is maybe even better) than boxing, wrestling, weightlifting or any other sport women take up. It is better to run on a football field in a T-shirt and shorts than wrestle on a wrestling mat wearing a singlet.”
It is possible that if the authorities of the North Caucasus paid more attention to women’s sport and created conditions for the development of different sports, then the names of female athletes from the region would be more frequently rolled out — accompanied by the music of the Russian national anthem.