Center for Women & Wealth

In May 2017, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) lifted its ban on head coverings, which was especially significant to Muslim women who wear hijabs because they would no longer be forced to choose between religion and athletics. One of the driving forces behind the ratification was Mara Gubuan, founder of Equality League. She and Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, have teamed up to talk about the organization’s focus on advancing women’s rights by eliminating institutional and cultural barriers to sports.

Earlier this year, you launched Equality League, a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on advancing women’s rights by eliminating institutional and cultural barriers to sports. What motivated you to start the organization?

Mara Gubuan: I founded Equality League because the barriers women and girls face in sports – whether it be unequal pay, equipment, opportunity or representation – are the same barriers they face in society. Sports are a universal, proven tool to fight discrimination and secure social change.

In 2017, I developed a strategy that contributed to the overturn of a long-standing international rule of basketball – the headgear ban – that forced observant Muslim women to choose between their faith and sports. We are implementing variations of that strategy to eliminate policies and perceptions that obstruct access to sports and their benefits. In turn, we believe the advancements will be replicated in other sectors of society.

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Image from documentary film "Afghan Cycles." Photo credit: Jenny Nichols

What are you focused on in year one?

MG: As a startup, we’re concerned with sustainability – fundraising to develop our infrastructure and incremental expansion. We’re fighting against gender discrimination by tackling both domestic and global inequities. We supported the passage of the Safe Sport Act (signed into law February 14, 2018) and are developing a campaign alongside some Larry Nassar survivors to implement its protections against child sexual abuse in sports. Internationally, we have attracted 200,000 supporters for the #NoBan4Women effort calling on FIFA to stop the discriminatory ban that bars women from entering stadiums as spectators in Iran.

Upcoming, we’ll focus on equal pay, as the Women’s World Cup is next summer, and the defending champion U.S. women’s national soccer team earns a fraction of their male counterparts. We are structured to either build our own or support existing initiatives as we see the likelihood for success. It must be the right argument at the right moment, so we remain nimble to carry out both rapid response and longer-term initiatives.

Have you involved professional women athletes in your organization?

MG: We are preparing to invite professional athletes to our global Athlete Advocacy Council. In America, I consider Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Ibtihaj Muhammad and Aly Raisman as our boldest advocates, although the latter two are not professional athletes. As a league, the WNBA is far and away the most progressive. Fourteen WNBA players supported our open letter supporting the hijab ban, and we would love to continue working with them.

Do you think there will be a point when “equality” has been reached? What will that look like?

MG: Yes, but it is generations away. When reached, women and men, boys and girls, will believe and carry out our rallying cry, “We are equal!”

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Image from documentary film "Afghan Cycles." Photo credit: Jenny Nichols

Minky, as the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, you develop international outreach campaigns. How has your work with the organization influenced your work with the Equality League?

Minky Worden: Working at Human Rights Watch for 20 years has given me a clear understanding of the hurdles to accessing sports around the world – and the devastating consequences for health, education and opportunities for millions of women and girls who don’t have access. Every country where women and girls struggle to play sports has different laws, policies and culture. Understanding the facts and laws for each gives us the basis for effective strategies and high-level advocacy meetings.

The Equality League bridges a gap between knowledge and understanding how and why women and girls face abuse and don’t have a level playing field in sports – and life – and action to expose and change those policies.

Through Human Rights Watch’s reporting on more than 90 countries around the world, we have a strong basis of facts and reports for high-level advocacy meetings – for example, with the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Because the Olympic Charter says “sport is a human right,” we can bring athlete advocates and facts to the attention of powerful sports federations like the IOC or FIFA and press them to act to uphold basic rights for women and girls. It’s a strategy grounded in decades of women’s rights work, but whose time has come because we now have worked to establish gender and human rights policies within these federations.

You previously lived and worked in Hong Kong. How does that experience factor into what you are doing now?

MW: My years living and working in Hong Kong gave me a great appreciation for how much we in the United States take for granted: the rule of law, not fearing a midnight knock on the door and how a small number of dedicated advocates can defend human rights. Because Hong Kong is a small, free society fighting a large, repressive Communist regime in mainland China, I also have a strong understanding of levers that may work to successfully apply pressure even on a powerful regime like the Chinese government. China still has extensive entrenched discrimination against women and girls, but on a historic level, it is an important example of how we can achieve a major change in practices that affect women’s rights. For example, the abusive practice of “foot-binding” girls (repeatedly breaking bones in girls’ feet and binding them so they would be tiny) was eradicated after centuries in a single generation. Imagine if we could develop strategies using sports to eradicate discrimination worldwide in a single generation. That is the type of tectonic, global shift Equality League is working for.

How do you educate people who are unaware of the extent of gender inequities in sports?

MG: Increasingly, we will share information via speaking opportunities, both traditional and social media, as well as viral campaigns. Our campaigns are structured to amplify the issue of an affected individual (such as an athlete or other sports influencer) in order to reach decision-makers with the power to change policy and culture.

Regarding the hijab ban in basketball, it was the NBA commissioner whose outreach to the FIBA sports governing board helped create the external pressure resulting in internal change. Ideally, we will speak with corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion and sports organizations whose support we need on every level to develop our resources and impact.

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What has been the public response to Equality League? How can people get involved?

MG: Overwhelmingly positive. My inbox is inundated with strange and wonderful requests from other nonprofit organizations that need our resources to get their efforts across the finish line to executives, from the major leagues to a Brazilian body-building duo.

We welcome our colleagues and the public to alert us of gender discrimination in sports through the contact form on our website: eqleague.org. We believe in collaboration to accelerate solutions, so whenever possible, we will mobilize our resources to advance women’s rights through sports.

Human Rights Watch has highlighted the fact that many major sporting events are held in countries known for their human rights abuses. Can you talk to us about the recent World Cup in Russia?

MW: I find that a universal challenge to our work is that most people are unaware that in many parts of the world women and girls struggle to play sports.

Billions of people worldwide watched the World Cup. Most fans would say they don’t want to sit in stadiums workers died to build. Yet most World Cup fans are unaware that 21 workers died to deliver a dozen stadiums or that North Korean slave labor built one of the World Cup stadiums. These abuses are also in violation of FIFA’s human rights policy.

The causes for women and girls being denied the human right to play sports can be war, conflict and poverty. More often, though, the hurdles are legal, cultural, religious and economic. If there are funds for a soccer team, they will always go to purchase uniforms or coaching for the boys. Young women in Afghanistan who trained and worked hard to be on the national cycling team found their donated bicycles were looted, and their coach was attempting to marry them.

In many countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, sports for women are called “steps of the devil.” However, all these countries have courageous women athletes who are fighting to knock down these barriers, and the governments aspire to host major tournaments. That is where our leverage for reform lies.

Research shows that participation in sports can help young women develop confidence and lead to long-term career success. How do sports develop these skills?

MG: Sports are a tool of socialization. We learn goal setting, commitment, communication, collaboration, conflict resolution and “sportsmanlike” conduct, which are integral to working with (or against) others to achieve any desired end. While sports develop leaders, it is important to note that they also develop “followers” whose distinct skills contribute to the collective effort.

You are both involved with “Afghan Cycles,” a documentary that tells the story of young women cyclists who ride across the country despite the cultural barriers and gender taboos. What drew you to this story?

MG: Another member of Equality League, Shannon Galpin, invited us as producers on the film, and we were honored to accept. The film stands alone as a work of art, but it is also an invaluable vehicle for organizations such as ours. It provides visual proof of the barriers we describe and seek to raise support from grantmakers and funders.

What action are you hoping results from raising awareness of these women?

MG: We take on issues that we determine are in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the case of denying women access to bicycles, that violates their freedoms of movement and full participation in society. For those who live in rural areas without the infrastructure of paved roads or others without access to vehicles or public transportation, the bicycle enables them to access education, health care and economic opportunities that help them realize their full potential. Our goal for raising awareness for the women in the film is to develop support for the many initiatives focused on this topic worldwide.

In a previous issue of Women & Wealth Magazine, Jacki Zehner, chief engagement officer of Women Moving Millions, shared her thoughts on documentary film as a change agent. How do you see the role of film as a catalyst for change?

MG: Documentary films and their companion social impact campaigns are powerful tools. One mustn’t underestimate the influence of visual representation. It is true that situations must be seen to be believed – and that it inspires social action. Jacki has been instrumental in our success by connecting “Afghan Cycles” with funders and introducing me to a producer of “The Tale” movie about writer/director Jennifer Fox’s childhood experience of abuse by her running coach. Our first event was a pre-broadcast screening and discussion at HBO to which we invited sports influencers who we are now working with to help destigmatize conversations on the difficult topic of child sexual abuse in sports. We are also collaborating with athlete survivors, Champion Women and Darkness to Light to teach children, coaches and their parents about how to recognize and prevent abuse.

Both of you are focused on shining a light on gender inequities in sports. Have you always been passionate about this topic?

MW: I was a tomboy growing up in Tennessee, and sports were key to my life at every stage. American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) had no leagues for girls when I was growing up, so I kicked my way onto the only soccer team for my age group: a boys’ team. Playing on tennis teams eased a transition to a new high school – and later in life when I moved to New York. Indeed, wherever I am in the world, from Lebanon to Congo to Guatemala, kicking a ball or swatting a badminton racket is the best way to have an instant connection with local people. Sports are truly a universal language.

MG: Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, girls and boys were afforded the same access to sports, and I took for granted the abundance of opportunities. My awareness and subsequent advocacy work on gender inequities in sports only developed three years ago when I invited women from eight countries to join my home state’s iconic seven-day, 500-mile RAGBRAI bicycle ride to promote female sports participation as a human right.

From those young women, I learned of all the barriers that exist around the world. I met a Pakistani Olympic swimmer who cut her hair and pretended to be a boy for four years in order to obtain access to a public pool from which girls were prohibited. Another woman, an Iranian snowboarding champion, was arrested by police as she was training for the ride, for they claimed riding a bicycle was illegal. In addition, a Saudi mountaineer actually learned how to ride a bicycle while on the ride, for women and girls in Saudi Arabia were only granted permission to ride in 2013 – albeit wearing head to toe abaya and riding only in circles with their male guardians supervising. Those young women inspired me to become an activist at the tender age of 50. This unanticipated work has proved to be both the most challenging and rewarding of my life.

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