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Physical Education: an Opportunity for Women?

ALEXANDRIA—The young women who attend the Physical Training College for Girls in Alexandria all have different reasons for doing so. Some of them have been fond of sports since childhood and want to follow their interests. Others want to prove that women can compete with men. Others are there simply because they received a low grade in the Thanaweya Aama, the national high-school graduation exam.

But in region where where much of the educational debate is over a mismatch between curricula and careers, the college’s graduates sometimes find themselves happily employed.

Maha Saad, who graduated from the college in 2010, now works as a karate coach and physical trainer in a private school  in Alexandria. She says she practiced karate since childhood and earned a black belt. “I joined the Physical Training College because of my love for sports,” she says.

Despite a few high-profile female athletes, it is still rare for women to play sports competitively or to coach them in Egypt, and it is frowned upon by some.

Asmaa Atef, a swimming coach in one of Alexandria sport clubs, said female coaches are viewed as unwelcome competition by many male trainers “the most important problem we face is that men consider themselves as better than woman at sports.” Male coaches often tell the families of young athletes that they can do a better job. “Men push many women to leave the field of coaching and training,” Ms. Atef said.

On the other hand, families may prefer female coaches or trainers to work with their daughters. The sports that are most popular for women, says Atef, are ones that allow them to keep wearing the headscarf, or hejab, in competition—such as handball, basketball and karate. Egyptian parents, particularly mothers, are increasingly interested in encouraging both their sons and daughters to play sports, says Atef. “They feel that their children can do what they couldn’t do when they were young.”

“Sports provide suitable job opportunities for many women,” argues Saad. Graduates of the college work as physical-education teachers, physiotherapists, sports managers, trainers and instructors in sports clubs. But they are rarely hired by public schools, she says. Most job opportunities are in the private sector, where the jobs come with have fewer benefits and guarantees.

As a result, quite a few of the school’s graduates head abroad. The oil-rich countries of the Gulf, where men and women are largely segregated, have a strong demand for trained female sports professionals to work in health clubs and schools.

Passant Ahmed graduated from the college in 2010 and today is a swimming coach in Saudi Arabia. “I joined the college, because I have practiced swimming since I was a small child,” she said. “Though I studied in science in high school and scored 92 percent in Thanaweya Amma, I was very keen on joining this college.” She could have joined highly desired programs in English, business or science but chose to join the Physical Training College even though it was against the will of her family.

She explained that “At the college we studied different subjects, including physiology and psychology, because any mistake could lead to an injury.”

She said she enjoyed her studies and chose the college “because I saw how it could provide job opportunities abroad, as most of the countries of the Gulf do not have physical training colleges.”

She says she has not faced gender discrimination despite working in a traditionally male-dominated field. “I have worked with men, and my supervisor used to favor me because I did a better job,” she said. “The only criterion was performance.”

On the other hand, Rowan Ismail, aerobics and Zumba coach in a health club in Alexandria, states that the major problem in her work is how others view graduates of Physical Training College. In schools, they see them as teachers whose role is secondary and to substitute for other instructors when they are absent, and to keep students quiet.

Mennah Abdel Hameed, a fourth year student in the Curricula and Teaching Methods Department, says that there is a gap between theory and practice. “In text books, for instance, there are specific methods of teaching, but we find they can’t be applied in real life, for different reasons, mainly financial circumstances.”  Equipment to play many sports is missing.

The college was established in 1954 as an institute, and then changed into a college affiliated first with Helwan University and then with Alexandria University. Students can specialize in any one of four fields: physical training, teaching methods, and sports management.

Maha Shafik, the college’s dean, said the college’s approach emphasizes practical training. Students are placed in sports clubs where they assist coaches. Students also practice training small groups in different sports, such as swimming.

But the college suffers from over-crowding. “During this academic year,”  says Shafik, “the college admitted around 140 students, but the Ministry of Education assigned it around 430 students, even though they are fully aware that the college cannot accommodate this number.”  High numbers and limited facilities mean students don’t get the practice they should.

Some students are not that motivated. “Some of the enrolled students have never practiced sports, and join the college because of their grades,” says Shafik. “Only a small percentage of students enroll in the college because they practice sports, or are driven to this career by their passion.” One of the graduates is Nahla Ramadan, who has competed for Egypt twice in the Olympics.

Shafik added that some students “join the college because they believe it is easy and are surprised by the difficult theoretical and practical curricula, such as statistics, anatomy, nutrition and body shape, sports psychology, and sociology.” The government should pay more attention to the college, she said, and view it as an educational rather than only a sports facility.

The school is about to enter a field that has long been the preserve of men. Football is the most popular sport in the country, and is overwhelmingly played, coached and watched by men. But female football teams are spreading. The sport will become part of the schools’ curriculum starting next year.
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