Democracy Lab

Away Game

Female soccer players are rewriting the rules for women's sports in the Middle East.

TRIPOLI — The venue for the biggest Arab women's soccer tournament held since the Arab Spring was not in the Middle East but Berlin, Germany. Since there are few barometers of the state of female emancipation in the Middle East more vivid than the freedom of women to kick a ball around, the location says it all: Their home soil was considered too hostile for women to stage such a major tournament.

On field, the July tournament, organized by Discover Football and financed by the German government, was proof that the skills gap between Arab and European women's teams is closing fast. The tournament was won by the Egyptian club team, Wadi Degla, who played a high-tempo game dominated by the silky displays of attacking midfielder Salwa Mansour.

But off the field, each of the six teams (Palestine's Diyar, Jordan's Orthodox Club, Tunisia's ASPTT, Libya's National Team, Lebanon's Girl's Football Academy, and Egypt's Wadi Degla) has its problems. Wadi Degla's players say conditions are worse than before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak because of an explosion of sexual violence. Traveling to away games is extremely cumbersome, as the women cluster together, with male chaperones, to avoid sexual predators.

Sporting authorities banned Libya's national team from traveling to Berlin three days before the tournament officially because it takes place during the holy month of Ramadan -- a stricture that did not prevent the other teams attending. 

Back home, Libya's women train at secret location with armed guards after a string of condemnations by Islamist zealots. In June, Ansar al-Sharia, the Benghazi militia linked by some with the September 2012 death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, issued a statement condemning women's football as un-Islamic. Salim Jabar, one of Libya's leading TV preachers, vented his opposition to women's football in a broadcast from the pulpit, declaring: "It starts with them revealing their hair, and then after a month they will be revealing their legs. May God punish them with the fire of today and the fire in the afterlife."

Tunisia's women complain that their all-male soccer association fails to support them, and has yet to issue a national team equipment to its international women's team.

And while Palestine has a thriving women's league on the West Bank, there aren't any teams in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where in March, the United Nations canceled the annual Gaza Marathon after Hamas refused to let women compete.

Lebanon's Girl's Football Academy (GFA) team said women's football teams are vanishing because the authorities refuse to disburse a $37,000 grant for women's football from FIFA, the world soccer governing body. Without the money, female players are unable to afford the costs of reserving fields and hiring referees.

Saudi Arabia refused permission for its women's team to enter the tournament. Last year Human Rights Watch accused Riyadh of denying women the right to compete in all forms of sport, citing one cleric who described female sport as "steps of the devil."

"There are a lot of people [in Lebanon] who think that football is not for women and won't let their daughters play," said GFA's Salim Assaf. "It's so frustrating."

Only Jordan's team, Orthodox, administered by the Christian Orthodox Church, said it had support from the authorities. Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, a member of FIFA's executive committee, has ensured money is pumped into the women's game, and last year persuaded FIFA to overturn a ban imposed in 2007 on the wearing of the hijab by female players.

Along with official intransigence comes heavy social pressure. For most, marriage is a barrier to playing. "The government is not the problem, the family is the problem," said Tunisian striker Wafa Ashani. "There are very few men who would agree to his wife playing sport. When you marry, it's finished with soccer."

"We get bad comments all the time, they say don't play football, it is not for women, you will get big legs, you won't find a guy," said Lebanese midfielder Karen Haddad, 25. "My boyfriend said ‘It's me or football.' I could only give him one answer. For me football is a passion."

And it's not just soccer. The World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap report places Arab states near the bottom of the equality league. Out of 135 states monitored, Jordan came in at 121, Lebanon at 122, Egypt ranked 126, and Saudi Arabia had its place near the bottom at 131. Libya, Palestine, and Tunisia were not included. 

Getting to the root of male opposition to female soccer -- indeed to all female sport -- in the Middle East is not easy. Claims that it is not "Islamic" are nonsense, say the players, who note there's nothing in the Quran banning women from sports, and indeed the book recounts Mohammed running races with his wife Aisha.

In her provocative essay for Foreign Policy, Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American columnist, argues that opposition to women's rights is lodged deep in the male psyche, centered on the fear of many men about losing control of their women.

"The Islamist hatred of women burns brightly across the region -- now more than ever," she wrote. "Attempts to control by such regimes often stem from the suspicion that without it, a woman is just a few degrees short of sexual insatiability."

Yet the teams on the lush grass of Berlin's Kreuzberg stadium also point a way forward for women in the Middle East generally. Rather than wait for male authorities to set up women's soccer infrastructure, women have done it for themselves.

Lebanon's GFA was set up by female players, the first private soccer school for women in the Middle East. Palestine's Diyar, is part of Bethlelem's Dar Al Kalina Academy which specializes in women's sport. Jordan's Orthodox team contains both Muslims and Christians, as do the teams from Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine. All the players say their teams are living proof that sectarianism is far from entrenched.

"The soccer pitch has been a battlefield for gender rights in the Middle East," says James Dorsey, a Singapore academic, Huffington Post columnist and author of a blog on Mid-East soccer: "Popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have had little impact on women's football. More important has been the drive by women themselves."

Discover Football's Friederike Faust, who is researching a Ph.D. on women's soccer, thinks the teams in Berlin are proof that female emancipation can be achieved through women taking direct action. "In Palestine, they built up a lot of women´s football infrastructure themselves. GFA from Lebanon is an outstanding example of self-organization," she said. "To make that possible makes you feel so powerful."

Antonia Zennaro

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