Exercising their rights

The law demands equal treatment, but women are still sorely underrepresented in sports.

football 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
football 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In all of Jerusalem, there is only one soccer training program for young girls who want to play in the women's league - the one run by the Beit Hakerem community center as part of its extracurricular sports activities. "The problem in Jerusalem is that girls are not interested in playing soccer," says Noga Yechieli, 13, an assistant coach of the Beit Hakerem teams. "Soccer is just not popular. "It is considered a boys' sport," she complains. "I have had so much trouble trying to find a girls' team to play on. I played in the US in the summers and it was normal. Here, I am considered crazy. When I'm on the bus in my uniform and cleats, people look at me strangely. When I tell them it is my soccer uniform, they stare in disbelief. You play soccer on a team?"
  • Raising the flag But in fact, former Israel national women's swimming champion and ex-Jerusalem city council member Anat Hoffman says if she had to choose the leaders of the country, female athletes would be her number one choice. "They know how to work hard and have the ability to be there for the long haul," says Hoffman, the current director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel's Religious Action Center. "They know how to overcome discouragement and negative voices telling them they can't do it. Plus, they develop their own inner voices telling them: 'You can win, you can do it!'" Sport, especially competitive sport, is much more than just toning up muscles and learning technical skills, but in Jerusalem and in the rest of the country, the number of girls in uniform is surprisingly low. "Sports are a wonderful tool for developing life skills such as excellence, achievement, motivation, the ability to meet challenges and realize personal potential," states the February 2005 National Plan for Women in Sports in Israel (2005-2012) by the Women's Sports Department of the Sports Administration, which was then part of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports. Another report, also from February 2005, by the Advisory Committee to the minister of education, culture and sport, goes even further, stating: "Girls, adolescents and women are entitled to equal access to these advantages [of sports]... and they should be given opportunities equal to those of men for realizing their personal potential... Sports constitute an important component in our culture and the status of women in sports reflects their standing in society." If the status of women in sport really reflects their standing in our society, then Israel doesn't have a lot to brag about. These two reports, both commissioned by then-education minister Limor Livnat, note that while women make up more than 50 percent of the overall population, the number of girls and women engaged in competitive sports is only 15% of the overall number of athletes in the country. And the number of women in decision-making positions on the boards of the various sports federations is less than 10%, while the number of women coaches is under 8%. Less than 5% of sports coverage in newspapers concerns women's sports and even this amount is far more than in the electronic media. For years, girls' and women's sport was discriminated against with respect to allocation of resources, a fact that prevented its development and advancement. Unlike the US, Israel does not have a "Title IX," the 1972 amendment to the US Civil Rights Act that mandates equal opportunity in education, including sports. Those promoting sports for girls and women in Israel have had to rely on rulings of the High Court of Justice regarding equal funding for school programs and distribution of sports funding by the Israel Sport Betting Board (the people who run the Toto Lotto), one of the two major sources of sports funding in Israel (the other being the Sports Administration). In addition, a 2003 amendment to the Sports Law made it mandatory for the various sports federations to have fair representation of women on their decision-making boards. In 1994, the Women's Sports Department in the Sports Administration was set up, as well as the School Sports Federation. The National Plan sets out a specific program for upping the number of female athletes from 12,000 in 2005 to 35,000 in 2012, and increasing to 30% the number of women coaches and 40% the number of women on the boards of the sports federations. It also called for the Israel Sports Betting Board to set aside NIS 80 million to use over eight years to promote women's sports. Like similar committees set up over the years aimed at advancing sports for women and girls, very few of these recommendations have been implemented. "The amendment to the Sports Law calling for fair representation has not been implemented," notes Dafna Lang, a commercial lawyer and one of the authors of the 2005 Advisory Committee report. "Like a lot of other nice laws on the books in this country, it has not been implemented." On the other hand, the NIS 80m. called for in the National Plan actually has been set aside by the Betting Board, but due to bureaucratic problems that neither the Sports Administration nor anyone else was able to explain, the funds have not been released. "This is sad because women are still not getting equal funding in sports," Lang continues. "We [the authors of the report] envisioned the NIS 80m. as being a special allocation to create teams and then support them. "This money should be going to the girls' sports in schools, to creating a sports infrastructure for women. But the report called for the creation of a special independent public council to administer the money, set goals and see that the money is used for these goals. Otherwise, like many previous programs, this money will not bring about real change." Shlomit Nir Tor is director of the Women's Department in the Sports Administration, which is now part of the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sports. She is also a vice president of the Betting Board, but she did not offer any explanation as to what is delaying setting up an independent framework for distribution of the money, and insisted that the ministry supports its creation and is pushing for it. "We are looking to work with the School Sports Federation," she told In Jerusalem. "A very big part of the progress that has been made in women's sports is with young girls in the schools. If we can get more young girls involved in sports, the situation will change dramatically." But beyond the lack of equal funding for sports for women and girls, Jerusalem suffers from an additional obstacle - a traditional society that does not see sports for women as legitimate. "There are great gaps in Jerusalem in the numbers of girls between the ages of six and 16 in competitive sports compared to boys," explains Dr. Kuty Meridan, director-general of the Cosell Center for Physical Education, Leisure and Health Promotion at the Hebrew University and one of the authors of the Advisory Committee report. "A large amount of energy has been invested in closing this gap but it still remains. The city has a social culture in which women in sports lack legitimacy. For the haredi and Arab populations, as well as many traditional Jews, sport for girls is not normative, he explains, but if girls are encouraged by society, especially in schools, they will show much more interest in sports. Meridan does point out that the only place in the city where there is equality in sports is in the educational system, and that is "because schools, by law, must have girls' groups." He also notes that Jerusalem does have good girls' teams in basketball, volleyball, swimming, fencing and tae kwon do. "I believe the main problem is that there is no overall city plan for developing and advancing girls and women in sports," Meridan explains. "If there is no plan then everything that is done is random and will not get results. I think that encouraging girls to get involved in sports is the job of the schools." He also believes that women must have greater representation on the boards and in the decision-making echelons of the sports federations. "The real revolution needs to come from talented women in sports management," he insists. "They will encourage women in sports and make sure that there is equality in funding and that the federations cannot discriminate against women." Vicky Dado, assistant to the director of the municipal Sports Authority, the body that coordinates all sports activities in the city, says Jerusalem has been making steady progress in advancing girls and women in sports. "In the last two or three years, the municipality has really put women's sports on its agenda," she claims. "The city also has prepared a master plan for sport in Jerusalem, with emphasis on advancing women and girls." According to Dado, the municipal authority matches what the Sports Administration gives to the sports organizations and the leagues, providing funding for women's and girls' activities that are one and half times as expensive as for men and boys. "We work with the various community councils to advance women's sports," she says, "and we have been very successful in increasing activities for women and girls in the community centers." However, Dado includes exercise and dance programs in her definition of sports while Meridan, Lang and Tor concentrate only on competitive sports. Dado says the city has been working with the Wingate Institute in running courses to train certified women coaches and instructors in basketball and swimming, and to train girls 14 to 18 as instructors in gymnastics. In cooperation with the Basketball Federation, the city has made advances in setting up special girls' school basketball teams for fifth and sixth graders. It also has 21 school sports clubs for both boys and girls for volleyball, soccer, tennis and track and field, set up in conjunction with the Jerusalem Education Administration and the Ministry of Education, at a cost of NIS 500,000. "The aim is to identify those with the potential for excellence and develop their talents, and then send them on to the sports associations and the leagues," Dado says. For the past year, the city has been running a pilot program in select kindergartens to encourage and develop an interest in sports at a young age. The Sports Department for east Jerusalem has, in the past two years, started to place more emphasis on women and girls. Basketball, tae kwon do and volleyball have begun to take off for girls in the schools in the Arab sector. In the haredi sector, competitive sports for women and girls have not taken root but folk dancing and exercise are on the rise. Nevertheless, old attitudes and stereotypes die hard. While basketball, volleyball, tennis and swimming are more or less accepted for women, soccer remains a real taboo. As noted by Yechieli, soccer is a bastion of machismo in Israeli sport and remains a problem for girls and women not so much because of funding, but because of attitudes. The Beit Hakerem program she attends is for girls from first through 12th grades. But in fact, there are no girls past the 10th grade, since from age 15 girls can join the women's soccer league team. In Jerusalem, the women's soccer league team is affiliated with Betar. Started four years ago with one team and five girls, the Beit Hakerem program has grown to three teams with some 40 girls from all over Jerusalem, as well as Mevaseret, Beit Zayit and Tzur Hadassah. "Jerusalem is more conservative than the rest of Israel," remarks Ammanjah de Vries, who coaches the Beit Hakerem group and also plays for the Betar women's team. One of the few full-time female soccer coaches, de Vries receives her salary from the Beit Hakerem community center. "Soccer is definitely seen here as a guy's sport," says de Vries. "My neighbors have four children - one boy and three girls. The boy plays soccer on a team. I saw the girls kicking the ball around and they were very good, so I brought them here to the team. But after one or two times, they disappeared. "I asked their mother why and she said her husband would not agree to it - the girls will get muscular and no boys will want to go out with them," she relates. "These are girls who are eight, 10 and 12. This may seem absurd, but it is typical of the attitudes, preconceived notions and stereotypes that women and girls who play soccer are up against." It's a shame, continues de Vries, because especially for girls and women, sports builds character and confidence, as well as teaches teamwork, coordination and concentration. Furthermore, she points out that because girls have had to fight for the right to play, this has taught them that there is nothing they cannot do if they really put their minds to it. De Vries also takes older girls with potential and trains them to be assistant coaches. "They serve as role models for the younger girls," she says. "Plus, they learn important life skills such as leadership, communications and organizational skills through soccer." A number of girls who started with the Beit Hakerem program have moved on to the women's soccer league and the women's national soccer team. For the past eight years or so, there has been a women's soccer league alongside the men's in Israel. The women's league is semi-professional, meaning that the players are not paid like the men are but are affiliated with the men's soccer clubs. Despite a legal obligation to fund the women's league the same as the men's, the league is under-funded and getting sponsorship is extremely difficult. The women's soccer league was set up only after FIFA (the World Football Association) instituted new rules that countries that do not have a women's national team cannot participate in international competition. The Israeli federation set up four teams and a national team, which met once. But there was no league behind the national team and the first year, it lost every game. "Still, the Israeli federation didn't think the country needed a women's league," de Vries says. "But some of the clubs took matters into their own hands and set up teams. Then the federation caved in and set up a women's league. In the five years that the women's teams have been around, they have accomplished what the men's teams have not done in some 30 years - almost qualifying to play in the World Cup. The youth team qualified for the European championship. The potential is tremendous." For Noga Yechieli, the Beit Hakerem program is heaven-sent. "I have been playing since kindergarten and this is the first place where I have really been taught to pass and kick correctly," she says. "I am just so glad to have found this place to play in Jerusalem."