Boulmerka, Hassiba (1968–)
Hassiba Boulmerka distinguished herself in track and field as an Algerian middle distance runner. At the Olympic Games held in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992 she won a gold medal, the first ever earned by an Arab and African woman in her event. This accomplishment was achieved at considerable cost. Because she trained and competed in men's shorts, Islamists condemned her dress and deportment. For others, she became a symbol of a new Arab woman and a feminist hero. Boulmerka is renowned for her competitive and courageous character and her outspoken convictions.
Some of the most famous women in modern Algerian history are associated with Algeria's War of Independence, such as Zohra Drif and Djamila Boupacha. Boulmerka remains engaged in a different kind of struggle. She has contested traditional women's social and athletic roles in Algerian, Muslim, and global societies.
The fourth-born in a family of seven, she was born on 10 July 1968, and grew up in Constantine, Algeria. Her father was a truck driver and her mother a housewife. At school, Boulmerka displayed athletic talent and her supportive parents allowed her to participate in races. As the years passed, she evinced an exceptional athletic future. Endowed with speed and stamina, she pursued her dream to become an international track athlete. Nevertheless, even at this early stage in her career, she faced growing opposition from relatives and strangers. Her athleticism was not acceptable because she transgressed traditional gender borders by exposing her arms and legs while training. She was spat upon and pelted with stones. Despite risking personal injury, Boulmerka dauntlessly persevered. Indeed, Boulmerka's story contains a subtext that involves the imagination of Algeria as a nation and, especially, the role of Islam and gender in Algerian society.
In 1988 Boulmerka began to achieve her athletic goals. At the African Games she won the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races. She failed, however, to qualify for the Olympic Games. Nonetheless, she learned what she had to do to compete at the highest levels. The greatest single sporting achievement in Algeria's history occurred on 1 September 1991 at the Track and Field World Championship competition in Tokyo, Japan. On that day, Noureddine Morceli and Boulmerka both won gold medals in their respective 1,500-meter races. Whereas the renowned Morceli was expected to win, no one anticipated Boulmerka's success. In the last turn of her race, she seized the lead and held off the formidable Tatyana Samolenko Dorovskikh of the USSR, the 3,000-meter champion. After Boulmerka crossed the finished line she recalled in Sports Illustrated: "I screamed for joy and of shock, and for much more. I was screaming for Algeria's pride and Algeria's history, and still more. I screamed finally for every Algerian woman, every Arabic woman" (Moore, 1992). This was the first time that a nation had both men's and women's world or Olympic 1,500-meter champions. Boulmerka was also the first African woman to earn an athletic world championship.
A throng welcomed the world champions at Algiers's Houari Boumédienne Airport. A parade followed in the Algerian capital. President Chadli Benjedid awarded each champion the prestigious Medal of Merit. Politicians commended the athletes for improving the political climate in the country. One told Boulmerka that she helped unify Algeria. Sadly, the national celebration would be a short one, as Algeria was on the brink of its greatest crisis in its postcolonial history.
The rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut/FIS) signaled the sudden growth of Islamism as a political as well as social and cultural ideology. Electoral success in local elections in June 1990 was followed in the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991. The prospect of a FIS-dominated government alarmed military and civilian elites, who overthrew Benjedid's government in January 1992 before the second round of voting and canceled the elections. A provisional High Committee of State (Haut Comité d'Etat/HCE) took over under the leadership of Mohammed Boudiaf. This led to protests and soon violence among governmental and Islamist forces—a tragedy that cost over 150,000 Algerian lives. In June 1992, Boudiaf was assassinated.
Name: Hassiba Boulmerka
Birth: 1968, Constantine, Algeria
Education: secondary school education
- 1988: Wins 800-meter and 1,500-meter races in African Games
- 1991: Wins 1,500-meter at Track and Field World Championship in Tokyo, Japan
- 1992: First Arab woman (and African) to win gold medal in Olympic history in Barcelona, Spain
- 1993: Wins bronze medal at world championship in Stuttgart, Germany
- 1995: Earns another gold medal at Track and Field World Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden
- 1996: Sprains ankle in 1,500-meter semifinals at the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia
- 1999: Elected to the Athletes' Commission of the IOC
In the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, Boulmerka again distinguished herself. In the 1,500-meter finals, Lyudmila Rogacheva of Russia led the field, but 200 meters from the finish, Boulmerka pounded past her and finished comfortably ahead with an astounding time of 3:55.30. Indeed, four women finished under 4:00. As Boulmerka slowed down, she pointed repeatedly at her jersey displaying her country's flag—a demonstration of her national pride. She dedicated her gold medal to the fallen Boudiaf.
Although now one of the most famous Algerians in the world, Boulmerka could no longer train at home. Constantly denounced and menaced by death threats issued by radical Islamists, bodyguards accompanied her everywhere. She continued, however, to have a distinguished track career. In 1993 she earned a bronze medal in the 1,500-meter competition in Stuttgart, Germany. Two years later, she astonished the track world again in Gothenburg, Sweden, by earning her second gold medal in the event. During the 1,500-meter semifinals at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, she lost her footing, sprained her ankle, and failed to advance. She retired in 1997.
Nevertheless, Boulmerka remained outspoken in her opposition to any form of oppression of women. She openly supported President Boudiaf and the HCE and later Liamine Zeroual's candidacy in the November 1995 presidential elections. She continuously condemned Islamist extremism and especially restrictions placed upon women, particularly in athletics. She captured international attention in 1999 by specifically accusing Mexico and Pakistan (and other Muslim countries) of discriminating against women athletes. She appealed to the International Olympic Commission (IOC) to campaign to stop what she called terrorism against women. Later that year, she was among the first Olympians directly elected to the Athletes' Commission of the IOC.
Boulmerka now lives a private, secluded life. She occasionally grants interviews. In December 2006, speaking with François Ruffieux, she recalled how, since she was a little girl, she always endeavored to overachieve. Acknowledging the importance of mental and physical power, she asserted that "most important, is to believe in oneself." She remains sensitive to the plight of the Algerian woman: "That which is forbidden by the law is forbidden by tradition. That which is forbidden by tradition is forbidden by religion." She is especially distressed by the lack of budgetary attention given to sports: "Some reproach me for being a politicized athlete. But it is difficult to advance without political support. We are living in a bitter period. I am sorry for Algerian sports." Although Boulmerka found athletics to be "a source of inspiration," she also recognizes that her dedication and ambition to succeed have also come at a steep personal price, her isolation from her family and country. She has lived in Italy, France, and the United States.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Boulmerka grew up in a political culture that extolled the Algerian revolution (1954–1962), including the contributory roles played by women in the liberation of Algeria from France and colonialism. Nevertheless, she has profoundly experienced the contradictions between revolutionary idealism and patriarchal reality. In many ways, Boulmerka's pursuits exemplify the revolution's objective of creating a free and egalitarian civil society. Although her athletic achievements distinguish her life, it is Boulmerka's championing the potential of women that marks her greatest contribution.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
As her 1999 IOC election indicated, the world community esteems Boulmerka. Sports Illustrated named Boulmerka among its "Top 100 Women Athletes" list. Although many exploit her contention with Islamism as a means to castigate Muslim culture, Boulmerka regards her differences as interpretative rather than doctrinal. She considers herself a good Muslim and equates Islam with peace and toleration. Her life has also been the subject of postmodern studies. According to William J. Morgan, "Athletic stories like Boulmerka's can be rendered as social texts, as forms of discourse" (Morgan, 1998, p. 346). In many ways, she represents the pride and paradox of postcolonial Algeria.
Noureddine Morceli (1970–) set both indoor and outdoor world records for the 1,500-meter. He capped his career by winning a gold medal in the 1,500-meter competition in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He also won three 1,500-meter World Championship gold medals. At one time he held the 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter, 2,000-meter, and 3,000-meter world records.
Nouria Merah-Benida (1970–) earned silver medals in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter competitions at the All-Africa Games in Johannesburg in 1999. In a stunning surprise, she won the 1,500-meter gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Inspired in part by Boulmerka's courageous legacy and her presence in the stands, Algeria's Nouria Merah-Benida won the gold medal in the 1,500-meter competition during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. After her victory, she said in the Observer of London, "This is for the Arab women so they can develop like other women in the world." She added, "I'm very happy that Arab women now have the chance to run at the Olympics. It wasn't easy to get here." Indeed, Merah-Benida's success was decisively influenced by Boulmerka's ambition and audacity. Boulmerka's pioneering imitative and her suffering have permitted more women to participate in athletics from Muslim countries. In addition, there are now efforts to tailor athletic uniforms for Muslim women to conform to tradition without losing competitive edge. This too is indirectly a result of Boulmerka's agonizing achievement. Sports have provided Hassiba Boulmerka with an opportunity to express her aspirations for women and for society, which are not simply Algerian or Muslim, but global. As Morgan reflected, "If Boulmerka's athletic narrative succeeds in doing anything, it succeeds in drawing us (Westerners and Easterners) out of our ethnocentric crannies and getting us to consider alternative ways of living and of morally sizing up the significance of our lives" (p. 349).
Mackay, Duncan. "Bare Legs and Blind Faith." Observer (1 October 2000). Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk/sydney/story/0,,375733,00.html.
Moore, Kenny. "A Scream and a Prayer." Sports Illustrated 77, no. 5 (3 August 1992): 46-61.
Morgan, William J. "Hassiba Boulmerka and Islamic Green: International Sports, Cultural Differences, and Their Postmodern Interpretation." In Sport and Postmodern Times, edited by Geneviève Rail. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Naylor, Phillip C. Historical Dictionary of Algeria. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Riddle, Amy. "Olympic Games: Boulmerka Berates Mexico." Independent (3 June 1999).
Ruffieux, François. "Hassiba Boulmerka: La vie dangereuse d'un symbole." 24 heures (6 December 2006).