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Taboos and Triumphs: Palestinian Women Footballers Make History

by Tanya Thomas on February 24, 2011 at 9:49 AM
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 Taboos and Triumphs: Palestinian Women Footballers Make History

The stadium was packed to the rafters with raucous fans, mostly female, who had turned out to watched the first-ever public encounter in the Palestinian women's football league.

They came in their thousands, many lugging 'tableh' drums or carrying Palestinian flags, to watch Seriyyat Ramallah take on Diyyar Bethlehem in the opening match of the league at the Faisal al-Husseini stadium near Jerusalem.


Most of the 8,000 spectators packing the stands of this recently-renovated stadium were women, many of whom had travelled from all parts of the occupied West Bank to watch the match.

Women have been playing football in the Palestinian territories for years but the conservative mores of this traditional society have meant that until now, the games have been played behind closed doors.

As the players ran on to the pitch -- Bethlehem's first 11 wearing a red and green strip, and Ramallah in black -- a lively debate broke out among spectators.

In a special enclosure for the male spectators, some found it hard to swallow the idea of a group of women sweating it out on the pitch in shorts and t-shirts.

"This league is a new and strange thing for we Palestinians," admits Mohamed Omar al-Din, who has travelled all the way from Gaza to watch the contest, his permit to travel acquired through the Palestinian football league.

"It is the first time we have seen anything like this but I'm OK with it."

Asked if he would let his sister participate, he says he would -- if he didn't live in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

"I would let her if we lived in the West Bank but in Gaza, it's impossible because it is a different place," he says. "People know us there."

Mohamed Zdudi, who also came from Gaza for the occasion, says the league proves the Palestinians are moving with the times, although he is less receptive to the idea of women's matches being played in public.

"This league is our way of keeping pace with evolution, nothing more," he said.

"But I would prefer girls to play football behind closed doors with the games watched only by women."

He doesn't want to talk religion, but gruffly admits he "would never let his sister play in such clothes in public."

As the crowd warms up, the stands come alive with chanting, flag-waving and the echo of nationalist songs as the fans roar encouragement to the two teams.

"A female football league is a great thing," enthuses Majeda Rabiyeh, a woman in her 40s who is rhythmically thumping a drum in support of Diyyar Bethlehem, her home team.

"I would support my daughter if she wanted to play football."

But another woman pours scorn on the level of the game, saying it was just not up to the same standard as the male teams.

"It doesn't matter how good these girls are, they will never be as good as the boys," she sniffed.

The idea that women should be barred from playing sport in public is anathema to journalist Amaal Jumaa, who belongs to the Women's Affairs Technical Committee, a Palestinian NGO which works to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in society.

"Women are entitled to play sports in public just like men, it is their right -- physically, spiritually and as human beings."

"I ask all of those who are against it to put themselves in these women's shoes: how would they feel if they were barred from playing in public just because of the shape of their body?"

In spite of grumbles about the teams' "immodest" clothing, the player coming in for the most flak is Diyyar's Niveen Kleb, who scored the first goal, and was the only player on the field wearing a hijab -- and a long-sleeved t-shirt and leggings under her red and green strip.

Speaking to AFP after the game, which Diyyar won 2-0, Kleb said she was proud of her hijab and felt "special" on the pitch, saying it "reflects a very good image of veiled Palestinian women" despite many describing her participation as "haram", Arabic for "forbidden".

Warda Hassan, another Diyyar player wearing a headscarf and sitting on the subs bench, said there was no conflict between her life on the pitch and her faith.

"There is no problem between my hijab and my game," she told AFP, saying her family supported her choice to play football.

At the kick-off, prime minister Salam Fayyad described the moment as "an historic day for Palestinian women, sports and the Palestinian people."

And Palestinian Football Federation chief Jibril Rajub described the move to bring the league into the public eye as nothing less than "a social, political and sports revolution for women".

The season will run for 10 weeks with six teams competing for the title.

Source: AFP

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