Qatari 400m hurdler Mariam Farid at the Asian Championships in Doha (© Christel Saneh)
When Qatari 400m hurdler Mariam Farid sets her blocks for this evening’s opening round, she’ll be doing so hoping to continue breaking barriers. As an athlete and ambassador for the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, it’s a responsibility she relishes, both on the track and off.
“It is a great responsibility - I am not representing only myself but also a culture, a tradition, Qatari women, hijabi women,” said Farid, who will line up in tonight’s first heat. Her immediate goal? An assault on the national record of 1:09.31 held by teammate Kenza Sosse who competed in the heats of the 400m last night.
With a personal best of 1:10.33, she knows that she will likely finish far behind the rest of the field. But those prospects aren’t stopping her. When she thought about finishing last, she said, “I was able to get over it because I thought of those women that may go through the same thing one day.”
“I will be running to break barriers and change the perspective of people who are coming from around the globe who don’t usually see us compete in hijab,” she said. “I can tell from the look on their face that they are surprised when they see us - but sometimes I ask myself, is it that shocking that I am running with a veil?”
In her student days at Doha’s Lycee Bonapart, Farid was athletic, often referred to as a tomboy. That only boosted her confidence.
When she was nine, her father, wanting to encourage her passion for sport, took her on a visit to the national team centre. But a coach there told her that she has flat feet, that she shouldn’t participate in sports and wouldn’t succeed in athletics.
But in 2013, five years later, she proved that she could be part of the national squad. At an athletics event at the Aspire Centre, a national team coach spotted her talent and asked her father if she could join them. A year later, she was already one of the best women on the Qatari team.
Two years later, just 16, Farid was chosen as an Ambassador for the IAAF World Athletics Championships, representing Qatar as a speaker when organisers made their bid presentation in Monaco. Today, she will compete on home soil for the first time in a world championship.
“I am aware that this is a huge opportunity for me and I know that for some people it is a dream to take part in such an event,” she said.
“It is very special that it is in Qatar, I really felt it when people who otherwise would never come to a stadium, call me to say that they are coming to watch. Even though I was telling them that I will not win a medal. They were like, ‘we don’t care, we want to see you run’.”
Farid believes that in order to attract more young Qatari women into the sport, she and her teammate Sosse will need to inspire an even younger generation.
“They need to know that you don’t have to wear shorts, that you can run as you are,” she said. “A lot of people ask me those questions, especially young girls on social media. Some of them joined me in training but not everyone continued. If you love the sport you will thrive. You need to be passionate about it and have a strong will.”
Now 20, Farid is often called on for national team duty. It’s a responsibility she accepts with pleasure as she works her way into a role as a spokesperson for women in Qatari sport. A communication student at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Farid wants to pursue a Master’s degree in Sports Management. Then, she believes, she will be armed with the right tools to continue her quest of changing the mentality of women in sports, especially in her region.
“I need to do a great athletic achievement to have my voice heard, and I strongly believe that it is all in your mind if you want to achieve something.”
Christel Saneh for the IAAF