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Moroccan athlete Nawal El Moutawakel, who is the first Arab, African, and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles, did so at the Los Angeles summer games in 1984. El Moutawakel became an Arab symbol of women’s liberation and empowerment. Since her Olympic gold, El Moutawakel has been an active member of national and international sports organizations; she served as secretary of state for Sports and Youth, and has marketed her image as a social activist involved in fighting illiteracy among rural girls and enhancing public awareness of the environment.


El Moutawakel was born on 15 April 1962 in Casablanca, Morocco. She grew up in a modest urban environment. Her parents, employees at the Banque Marocaine du Commerce Extérieur (BMCE), were part of the budding Moroccan middle class that started to take shape during the postcolonial era. They accepted modern cultural urban lifestyles and had a keen interest in sports, especially volleyball and judo. El Moutawakel’s father, Mohamed El Moutawakel, encouraged her to a certain degree to partake in a modern way of life without forsaking traditional Moroccan values. Local perceptions of female social roles limited the extent of the freedom El Moutawakel could have in her modern mode of living. As a young girl, El Moutawakel was expected to engage in housework activities in preparation for marriage. Her parents were concerned about social stigma that would result from having a daughter influenced by Western values, and were careful to check that El Moutawakel adhered to the main cultural rules of traditional Moroccan society.

Despite these social pressures that faced El Moutawakel’s parents during the 1960s, they did not refrain from supporting her schooling. While at school, El Moutawakel received much support from her parents and started to compete at the high school level in national and regional sports meetings. By the age of sixteen, El Moutawakel burst into Moroccan, Arab, and African prominence, becoming the Moroccan champion between 1977 and 1987 in the categories of 100-, 200-, and 400-meter hurdles; champion of the Arab world in the same categories, and African champion in 400-meter hurdle during the Cairo meetings of 1983. This performance brought El Moutawakel widespread repute as a rising woman athlete in Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Arab world.

In 1983 El Moutawakel received her baccalauréat (high school diploma) in sciences économiques in Casablanca. Her athletic performance caught the attention of European and American universities, who courted the young Moroccan star by offering her scholarships. El Moutawakel enrolled at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, where she demonstrated high levels of performance and broke many National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) records. In 1984, as a member of the Iowa State University’s track and field team, El Moutawakel was declared champion of the U.S. NCAA tournament in the category of 400-meter hurdles. She won the same title during World University tournament in Yugoslavia in 1987.

After her graduation from Iowa State University, where she earned a B.S. degree in physical education in 1988, El Moutawakel worked as an assistant coach for the Iowa State University athletic team. In 1989 she returned to Morocco and was appointed inspector at the Ministry of Sport and Youth, as well as the national sprint and hurdle coach. In 1997 she became the secretary of state for sport and youth. From 1998 to 2003, El Moutawakel joined the BMCE Bank Foundation for Education and Environment as executive director. She is also an active member of many international sport organizations. She is a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and was a council member of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).


Name: Nawal El Moutawakel (Nawwal al-Mutawakkil)

Birth: 1962, Casablanca, Morocco

Family: Husband, Mounir Bennis; Two children

Nationality: Moroccan

Education: B.S. (physical education), Iowa State University, Ames, 1988


  • 1984: Wins Olympic gold medal, Los Angeles Games
  • 1995: Becomes council member of International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)
  • 1997: Named secretary of state for sport and youth
  • 1998: Becomes member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
  • 1998–2003: Executive director, BMCE Bank Foundation for Education and Environment


The athletic performance of El Moutawakel triggered Moroccan and Arab public support of women’s participation in athletics. Her trailblazing achievement inspired other Moroccan and Arab women to compete in track and field regionally and worldwide. El Moutawakel opened the door for Arab women’s participation and success in the Olympic games. In 1992 HASSIBA BOULMERKA of Algeria took the gold in the 1,500 meters at the Barcelona Olympics. GHADA SHOUAA of Syria followed the same course, winning the gold in the heptathlon during the Atlanta Olympics of 1996.

However, one of the main contributions of El Moutawakel remains her role in changing Arab and Islamic perceptions in regard to women’s participation in sports. Despite the support of her father and of King HASSAN II who saw in her a symbol for his politically liberal policies, it was a groundbreaking event for an Arab woman to go against certain traditional cultural codes of behavior. On the one hand, many Muslims criticized her dress, which went against the customary social rules. On the other hand, she also broke the Western stereotypes of the Arab woman’s participation in the public life. El Moutawakel built on her success in the United States by serving as an agent of change in her male-dominated society. In 1993 she organized the first Moroccan women’s 5K race in Casablanca to inspire women through sports. The event has been held ever since and attracts more than twenty thousand participants. In addition to her role in changing societal attitudes toward women, El Moutawakel also inspired Moroccan women to be involved in administrative positions and to take social responsibilities as activists in fighting AIDS and illiteracy and in raising awareness about environmental issues.


Since her Olympic title, El Moutawakel has gained a positive worldwide reputation as a symbol of women’s liberation in the Arab and Islamic world. El Moutawakel has been hailed for breaking down barriers for women, especially in Africa and the Middle East, and for inspiring young girls.


As a Moroccan athlete, El Moutawakel’s legacy is not only felt in her home country as the first Arab and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal, she is also an international sports female icon. The IOC has utilized her positive image to improve athletics, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. In the United States, El Moutawakel was named an All-American citizen of Ames, Iowa, in 1984 and was inducted into the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.


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over 1 year ago

I hope this email finds you well,I'm writing a book for youth about Arab/Muslim women and would like to interview Nawal El Moutawakel but I'm not getting to her, can you please help me contacting her ? I will really appreciate it.
Thank you so much