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

National Security

How We Lost Yemen

The United States used the Pakistan playbook on Yemen's terrorists. It didn't work.

For much of the past four years the United States has been firing missiles into Yemen. Drones, ships, and planes have all taken part in the bombardment, carrying out at least 75 strikes -- including an alleged drone attack that killed five on the night of Monday, Aug. 5, bringing the death toll to a minimum of 600 souls, according to the best estimates.

But for all that, for all the strikes and all the dead, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to attract more members, growing from 300 in 2009 to well over a thousand today. U.S. officials almost invariably refer to it as the most dangerous branch of al Qaeda's network, a designation that has remained constant since the United States started bombing Yemen in 2009. And the group, as the ongoing terrorism alert that has closed U.S. embassies has shown in dramatic fashion, remains capable of paralyzing U.S. diplomatic efforts across an entire region.

All this raises a rather simple question: Why? Why, if the U.S. counterterrorism approach is working in Yemen, as Barack Obama's administration claims, is AQAP still growing? Why, after nearly four years of bombing raids, is the group capable of putting together the type of plot that leads to the United States shuttering embassies and missions from North Africa to the Persian Gulf?

The answer is simple, if rather disheartening: Faulty assumptions and a mistaken focus paired with a resilient, adaptive enemy have created a serious problem for the United States.

Part of the U.S. approach to fighting AQAP is based on what worked for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drone strikes have decimated what is often called al Qaeda's core (though as al Qaeda's strength moves back toward the Arab world, analysts will need to start rethinking old categories). Unfortunately, not all lessons are transportable. This means that the United States is fighting the al Qaeda that was, instead of the al Qaeda that is.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda was largely a group of Arabs in non-Arab countries. In Yemen, al Qaeda is made up mostly of Yemenis living in Yemen.

This has two key implications for the United States. First, new recruits no longer need to travel abroad to receive specialized training. For years, men like Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of AQAP and the man believed by U.S. officials to be recently promoted to al Qaeda's global deputy, had to spend time in training camps in Afghanistan to acquire the requisite experience. But since AQAP has developed its own network in Yemen, that is no longer the case. Now young Yemenis who want to join al Qaeda can study with Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group's top bomb-maker, without ever leaving home.

The United States has had some recent experience fighting a similar foe: al Qaeda in Iraq. But that was with the full weight of the U.S. armed forces. One of the many reasons that the Obama administration has settled on a drone-heavy approach to Yemen is the realization that sending large numbers of U.S. troops into Yemen would be a mistake of catastrophic proportions. For the past few years, AQAP has been making an argument that just like Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen is also under Western attack, which requires a defensive jihad from every Yemeni. AQAP has not been particularly successful making that argument, but if the United States were to send ground troops to Yemen, that would change. And AQAP would move from a few thousand fighters to many times that number.

The second drawback to assuming that what worked in one place would automatically work in another is what Yemenis call thar, or revenge -- a concept the United States appears to have overlooked in Yemen. The men that the United States is killing in Yemen are tied to the local society in a way that many of the fighters in Afghanistan never were. They may be al Qaeda members, but they are also fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, tribesmen and clansmen with friends and relatives.

The United States can target and kill someone as a terrorist, only to have Yemenis take up arms to defend him as a tribesman. In time, many of these men are drawn to al Qaeda not out of any shared sense of ideology, but rather out of a desire to get revenge on the country that killed their fellow tribesman.

These multiple and simultaneous identities, along with the ability of Yemeni AQAP members to move throughout their country, make tracking and targeting them a logistical nightmare. It is hard to tell who is al Qaeda and who isn't from several thousand feet.

Yes, some strikes have been spectacular successes, a perfect blending of intelligence and technology to hit the intended target. Two years ago, in September 2011, the United States killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen the United States believed to be the head of AQAP's external operations unit. This year a U.S. drone took out Said al-Shihri, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee and the deputy commander of AQAP. But for all the high-profile successes trumpeted by the White House, there have also been tragic failures -- drone strikes that went wrong and killed women and children or tribesmen who had no connection to al Qaeda. And even the successes may breed more militants.

Further compounding the problem is the U.S. insistence on focusing on personalities instead of the broader network. This is what CIA officials refer to as "mowing the lawn" of terrorism, but it comes at the expense of not attacking the root system.

The history of the United States in Yemen is littered with exactly this type of mistake. When Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, AQAP's military head and probably the organization's single most dangerous member, escaped from prison in 2006, the United States paid them little attention, focusing instead on the two terrorists it knew at the time: Jamal al-Badawi and Jabir al-Banna, both of whom later surrendered themselves. Wuhayshi and Raymi, meanwhile, went on to resurrect al Qaeda in Yemen and eventually to transform that tattered band of survivors into the AQAP we know today.

More recently the United States focused on Awlaki. Then came bomb-maker Asiri's moment in the sun, which hasn't quite ended yet. And now we're starting to learn about Wuhayshi, a man Osama bin Laden groomed for leadership during what amounted to a four-year mentorship in the late 1990s.

To some extent this focus on personalities is understandable. Like the old wanted posters former President George W. Bush was so fond of, the United States knows when it has defeated an individual: There is a smoking crater and al Qaeda releases a eulogy. But while the United States is scratching names off its most-wanted list, AQAP the organization continues to grow and it continues to prove itself capable of projecting the type of power that sends the United States into panic mode.

The Obama administration's counterterrorism approach in Yemen is primarily concerned with preventing an immediate attack directed at America or its interests in the Middle East. This is a short-term goal that eclipses everything else, from long-term strategy to the stability of Yemen itself. The United States has yet to realize that this is not a war it can win on its own. Only the tribesmen and clerics in Yemen are in a position to decisively disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.

The United States can do a lot of good in Yemen, but it can also do a lot of harm. And right now it is playing a dangerous game, firing missiles at targets in the hopes that it can kill enough men to keep AQAP from plotting, planning, and launching an attack from Yemen. After this terrorism alert that has sent America's entire diplomatic and intelligence operatives in nearly two dozen countries scrambling, it may be time to rethink that approach in favor of a strategy that's more sustainable -- and more sensible too.

-/AFP/Getty Images