May 24, 2024

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Women’s Soccer Makes Gains In Mideast Despite Conservatives

5 min read
Women's Soccer Makes Gains In Mideast Despite Conservatives

AMMAN, Jordan — Sarah Asimrin still hears it from her uncles sometimes: “It’s inappropriate because you’re a girl.” But on a recent evening, the 13-year-old Jordanian was practicing soccer with other boys and girls on the field where her club plays.

“The game’s action made me fall in love with it. I love it a lot, more than any other sport,” said Asimrin.

Despite the objections of a few uncles, her younger sister Aya plays soccer as well, and their family is supportive of them. In fact, their father teaches soccer at a private academy in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

In the Middle East, which is obsessed with men’s soccer and this month in Qatar hosting the World Cup for the first time, women’s soccer has long been ignored. Due to a lack of funding as well as conservative beliefs that girls aren’t made for sports or that certain uniforms, like shorts, are too revealing, the women’s game has suffered.

But some areas exhibit signs of movement. Growth typically depends on active government promotion of women’s sports. Where that occurs, it can change public perceptions by tapping into girls’ and women’s repressed enthusiasm.

With one of the most successful national teams in the region and a network of girls’ youth and school leagues, Jordan has been among the leaders in the field.

Some people are making fresh pushes. In Saudi Arabia, where women have only been permitted to watch soccer games since 2017, the inaugural matches of a new women’s Premier League were played last month. This year marked the first time the Saudi women’s national team faced off against the foreign competition.

Newly established competitions provide women’s teams with the chance to compete internationally and, in the supporters’ opinion, will spur the formation of more teams.

The first women’s club championships were held in 2019 by the Asian and the much smaller West Asian football associations. The African federation began its women’s club championship last year in Cairo, and this year’s competition got underway this week in Morocco. The winning club will receive $400,000, which is significantly less than the $2.5 million awarded to the winning men’s club.

Young women who want to pursue careers in the arts are inspired by the new venues.

At the Orthodox Club in Amman, 20-year-old Masar Athamneh plays soccer and claims she has done so since she was 12 or 13. She used to hang out with her brother and the neighborhood boys on the soccer fields while she watched the European leagues on TV. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo has been her idol “because he worked hard on himself.”

She aspires to play for Jordan’s national team in future international competitions.

“Naturally, we run into problems occasionally. … Like, “This is a game only for boys or males,” or “Why do you wear shorts?’ … and so on. This is a huge problem we face,” she said. “However, in my opinion, things are improving over time.”

According to sports analyst Owni Fraij, Jordan’s Football Association gives clubs financial support so they can create women’s teams, which has prompted even some conservative clubs to participate.

But the biggest issue is still money. Clubs treat women’s teams that don’t generate income “as a kind of luxury,” he said.

The region’s most pronounced contrast may be found in Egypt. Although repeated attempts have been made to end the neglect of women’s soccer, its biggest men’s teams are wealthy powerhouses that routinely win regional tournaments. In most women’s competitions, one team, Wadi Degla, comes out on top.

Public criticisms of Egyptian women have also been experienced. After the under-20 women’s national team defeated Lebanon in 2020, there was a social media backlash of sexual harassment, including crude remarks and snide remarks about girls playing soccer.

Even more unsettling was the administrators’ response. The team’s coaching staff was fired, and upcoming games were postponed, leading to worries that the entire team would be disbanded. The team managed to survive thanks to players’ appearances on TV talk shows and social media posts.

Women's Soccer Makes Gains In Mideast Despite Conservatives

Egyptian women may be encouraged by external pressure. Leading Egyptian clubs should be forced into compliance because the African Champions League requires clubs participating in its men’s tournament to also field women’s teams.

Girls’ passion for the game is never satisfied when politics and strong social opposition collide. For instance, while women’s soccer is played by Palestinians in the West Bank with a fair amount of activity, it is essentially nonexistent in the Gaza Strip.

2.3 million people call Gaza home, and they tend to be moderate. Women’s freedoms are not given much room by its militant Islamist rulers, Hamas. Moreover, a 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade has severely harmed the economy, leaving little money for so-called leisure activities.

With 20 girls playing basketball and soccer, the Beit Hanoun Al-Ahli Youth Club is one of the few female-only sports organizations in Gaza. Long-sleeved shirts and pants are what they choose to wear instead of shorts. They stop playing once they turn 17 and frequently do so to get married, according to the team manager Maha Shabat.

“There is no support for women’s sports in the Gaza Strip … no support to be like girls in other parts of the world,” Shabat said.

Rama Ashour, a 14-year-old soccer player, expressed her desire to continue playing and perhaps even join a national team.

“On the internet, I see many girls (elsewhere) playing normally,” she said. The largest obstacle in Gaza is society and tradition, but she said she wants to “think positively about the criticism. I’ll use it as motivation to keep going and test everyone.”

Others on the team, however, are accepting their limitations. “My ambition — to be a player — is something impossible in this society,” said 16-year-old Hala Qassem.

The most tragic setback occurred in Afghanistan, where the Taliban takeover just over a year ago destroyed the fledgling women’s sports scene.

Numerous athletes fled in their hundreds. The women’s national team was evacuated by Australia, the girls’ youth team was taken in by Portugal, and the youth development team members were flown to Britain.

Taliban restrictions on women’s movement in public, teen girls attending school, and women participating in sports have made life for those left behind unbearably difficult.

On her high school’s girl’s soccer team, Sabera Akberzada was a center. The 17-year-old is currently unable to play or go to school. Most of her teammates are no longer in touch with her.

“Life has become hell for us, as a woman we can’t do anything by our choice,” She had hoped to join the national team of Afghanistan someday, according to Akberzada. “Sadly, my dream was only ever a dream.”

In an effort to preserve the sport, Khalid Popal, a former captain of the women’s national team, is currently based in Denmark. She is trying to rescue the remaining members of the under-15 team who are in Afghanistan.

“I feel so worried and so sorry for women, young women who wanted to be independent,” she said. “In Afghanistan, I don’t believe women will ever again participate in sports.”


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