Dreams dashed for Terengganu’s aspiring female gymnasts as state bars them from competitions over attire concerns

Asia World

TERENGGANU: Eight-year-old Lara Khadijah Cornelius McAfee loves learning gymnastics because she can perform acrobatic movements.

“It’s fun because I get to do stuff my friends can’t, like handstands,” she said with a cheeky smile.

The Terengganu resident has no trouble steadying herself with both hands on the mat, as she pranced through the moves of her routine. 

Gymnastics Terengganu
Lara Khadijah Cornelius McAfee (right) started learning gymnastics since she was three years old. She wants to be a professional gymnast but must move out of Terengganu if she wants to pursue the sport competitively. (Photo: Fadza Ishak)  

The small-framed girl told her coach at at Aliashka Fun Gym that she wants to follow in the footsteps of Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, Malaysian gymnastic queen who recently qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But what she might not fully understand yet is that the state government of her home state Terengganu has put in place sporting guidelines that will make it near impossible for her to train and compete professionally in the near future. 

The guidelines include withdrawing women from competing in all forms of gymnastics as athletes would “display indecent movements” that would expose their bodies.

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The Terengganu state government, led by Islamic political party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), is also draftinga syariah-compliant code of conduct for its athletes.  

Ms Nurul Alia Jamal, Lara’s coach and a former national gymnast, said she disagreed with the state government’s decision and called for more discussion with the local gymnastics fraternity.

“Lara wants to be like Farah Ann, but with the new guidelines, her dreams will be dashed and all our hard work will be wasted,” she said.

“There should be a special discussion to resolve the issue, even if that means finding a set of clothing that is suitable. Barring them from training and competing is not the answer,” she added.

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HALT RECRUITMENT OF FEMALE GYMNASTS, FOCUS ON ALL-MALE TEAM 

The Terengganu Gymnastics Association, which talent-spots and trains athletes from schools in the state, told CNA that they will be scaling back on recruiting promising female athletes in the near future, as per the guidelines from the state government.

Terengganu sent its largest female gymnastics contingent in 2018 to the biannual national sporting event Sukma Games, but they will not be sending any female gymnasts for the next edition in July 2020.

Gymnastic shool Terengganu
Moving forward, the Terengganu team will recruit mainly male gymnasts in line with the state government’s guidelines. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

“Our hands are tied, we have to follow the guidelines from the state government,” said the association’s secretary-general and head coach Ahmad Akramin.

“It’s better if we just focus on males for our upcoming trials. We will have higher medal chances if we streamline our resources in that manner,” added the former national gymnast vaulter, who once clinched bronze at the Southeast Asian Games.

School boy gymnasts
Terengganu wants to focus on developing its male gymnastic team now that the government will not allow girls to compete in state competitions. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

Mr Ahmad oversees the training for the state athletes and has a handful of female gymnasts under his charge.

When CNA visited a training session at the state’s Bukit Nenas sports school, there were a handful of female athletes. 

The teenagers were on a punishing routine – swinging on uneven bars with their chalked hands and doing handstands across the gymnasium repeatedly. But their hard work could be in vain as they would not be given the opportunity to represent Terengganu in the national meet in 2020. 

School girl gymnasts
Teenage girls training at the state sports school in Bukit Nenas. They are required to wear long tights when doing their routines. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

Mr Ahmad said that the female gymnasts will continue training for the moment, but if they want to go far in the sport, they might have to train with the national team in Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur or reside in another state.

“We’ve had a non-Muslim female gymnast who is talented, but she has moved to train with the national team in Kuala Lumpur. It’s possible for aspiring girl gymnasts to fulfill their dreams, but very challenging,” said Mr Ahmad.

WE ARE NOT THE TALIBAN: EXCO MEMBER

The state government unveiled its sporting guidelines in August 2018, three months after PAS wrested control of Terengganu from the Barisan Nasional coalition after Malaysia’s 14th general election.

The implementation of the guidelines have been done in stages so as not to “appear radical”, Terengganu’s Youth, Sports and NGO Development executive councillor Wan Sukairi Wan Abdullah told CNA.

“We know that we are managing people, not robots. People have feelings, they can be rebellious, they can be accepting … we don’t want people to see Terengganu as an extreme state like the Taliban,” he said.

Wan Sukairi Terengganu
Terengganu’s Youth, Sports and NGO Development executive councillor Wan Sukairi Wan Abdullah. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

Mr Wan Sukairi explained that the written guidelines are based on Islam and syariah compliance. He explained that the rules address points like attire, coaching, physio treatment and other areas of sports related to training and competition.

He also outlined that the importance of “modest attire” for sports is to take care of the welfare of the athletes and prevent sexual misconduct from happening.

“You may have heard of reports of molest and rape involving the coaches. These things happen and we want to prevent all these things from happening by introducing these (sporting) guidelines that cover early preparation to competition,” he said.

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TERENGGANU TO PRESS ON IN SPITE OF CRITICISM 

Terengganu’s efforts has drawn flak from the country’s sporting fraternity.

The National Sports Council (NSC) director-general Ahmad Shapawi Ismail was quoted as saying that the Terengganu state government’s concerns over female gymnasts will affect the future of potential female athletes who can make the country proud.

Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman said athletes are the country’s “heroes and heroines, regardless of what they wear”. 

He also told local media that Mr Wan Sukairi had given him his commitment that he would “advise” and not “coerce or force” the female athletes.   

In the face of such criticism, Mr Wan Sukairi insisted that he will spearhead the implementation of the guidelines and prove that athletes can be competitive with syariah-compliant attire. 

“We respect (the federal government) and acknowledge that there are many things that we have to follow and adhere to and discuss. But with regards to this issue, we have a say,” he said.

“I would rather we commit to proving, not just to the minister and the federal government, but to everyone that even by wearing syariah-compliant attire, our athletes are not just capable of competing, but become champions,” Mr Wan Sukairi added.

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He cited the example of Terengganu’s sprint queen Azreen Nabila Alias, who clinched three golds in the 2018 Sukma Games while wearing hijab and long tights.

The 19-year-old also smashed the Games record in the 100m dash en route to winning the Best Sportsgirl Award.

“It’s about how fast you run, not what you wear,” said Mr Wan Sukairi.

“If you run slow, you won’t win even by wearing shorts, but if you run fast, you can win while wearing a sarong,” he added.

Young girl gymnasts
These girls attend Ms Nurul Alia’s gymnastic sessions twice a week, but some of their parents are not keen for them to pursue the sport professionally. (Photo: Fadza Ishak) 

His sentiments are shared by many Terengganu locals, including a mother who sends her daughter for gymnastic classes at Aliashka Fun Gym.

The mother, who declined to be named, told CNA that she is fine with her daughter doing gymnastics at a young age, but not as a profession or for competition.

“It’s good to ensure they are fit and active. But the attire is not modest, so I would not be comfortable with her performing like this in front of crowds,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ms Nurul Alia, the gym’s head coach, is hopeful that the federal government would find sports apparel with suitable fabric and hemline that will allow women in Terengganu to compete again.

“I just hope they will find a compromise so that girls can continue the sport. If they find a set of clothing that is suitable, is compliant to international gymnastic laws and is comfortable, I think that’s not a problem,” she said.

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