THE venue says it all – the biggest Arab women’s football tournament in two years was held this week, not in the Middle East but in Berlin, with home soil deemed too turbulent for the competition.
Two years on from the Arab Spring, the struggle of Arab female footballers to play the game they love is a reminder of the failed promises of pro- democracy revolutions.
Egypt won the tournament, at Berlin’s Kreuzberg stadium on Tuesday, with impressive displays from striker Salwa Mansour, a player to watch if Arab women’s football ever achieves the status it enjoys in Europe.
If there were a league table for freedom, Jordan would come top. Alone among the five competing teams, Jordanian players enjoy full state support, backed by Prince Bin Al Hussein, and last year celebrated victory by leading a campaign to over turn a ban on the hijab by international world football governing body Fifa.
Fifa imposed the ban in 2007, worried that the garment, if tugged, could strangle a player. The battle to overturn it was led by Jordan’s goalkeeper Medada Ramounieh, who created a Facebook page that attracted 68,000 followers in a month. “We should be allowed to play in the hijab. Fifa says football is for all,” she said.
At the other end of the table is Libya. Authorities banned the team from travelling to Germany three days before the tournament. The Libyans train in secret, with armed guards, fearing attacks by zealots.
In June, Ansar Al Sharia, the Benghazi militia linked by some to the attack on the US consulate last September in which ambassador Chris Stevens was killed, issued a statement condemning female football: “As we all know in football you have to wear clothes that reveal too much of the women’s body. It is releasing our women for the world to see.”
Between Jordan and Libya are a host of teams battling for the right to kick a ball.
Tunisia’s football authorities have refused to provide the team with international kit, and Lebanon’s women are considering a breakaway league in protest at the failure of the country’s Football Association to pass on money allocated by Fifa to women’s football.
Palestine has a thriving league on the West Bank, but none at all in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where women were earlier this year banned from taking part in the annual marathon.
Egypt’s players say conditions are worse now than before the 2011 uprising that removed the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, because the explosion of sex attacks on women complicates trips to away fixtures.
“Most of us face the same problems in our different countries, they say you cannot play, your legs will get fat, you won’t find a husband,” said Lebanon midfielder Karen Haddan, a player with Beirut’s Girls Football Academy team.
Social pressures are also strong. Few of the players are married, with suitors likely to demand they quit the sport before a wedding.
“The government is not the problem, the family is the problem,” said Tunisian striker Wafa Ashani.
Critics of the women’s game claim sport is “un-Islamic” – something the women refute, pointing to a passage in the Koran where the prophet Mohammed runs a race with his wife Aisha.
Yet despite the pressures, Arab women’s football is thriving, and most teams have male coaches, proof that prejudice is far from universal.