An uphill battle for Palestinian women

The players, some competing in headscarves and extra long shorts for modesty, shrug off their setbacks.

gaza women 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
gaza women 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
No field, no money, no wins - it's been tough going for the fledgling Palestinian women's national soccer team. Yet the players, some competing in headscarves and extra long shorts for modesty, shrug off their setbacks. They say they love the sense of strength and confidence they get from the game, as well as the rush of claiming a once forbidden place in a society largely run by men. "Here in the Arab world, we always say boys are better, men are better," said Samar al-Araj, one of the soccer pioneers in the West Bank and the fitness trainer of the national team. "When they [the women] play football, they feel like they have the same level with the boys." The women have big dreams like turning pro or going into coaching - all uncharted territory for Palestinian women. But for role models, they still look to men, like France's Zinedine Zidane or the players of Real Madrid, because women's games are not shown on TV here. In the Arab world, soccer is still in the early stages of development, said Tatjana Haenni, in charge of women's soccer at FIFA. The first women's team in the region was formed a decade ago in Egypt, and women's soccer remains relegated to the fringes of Mideast sports. No Arab team has qualified for the women's World Cup in 2007. In the Palestinian Authority, women's soccer is a very modest affair. Three years after the first women's club was formed in Bethlehem, there are only four teams, not enough for a league. The two dozen Gaza players stopped practicing during Israel's recent five-month military offensive that was launched in response to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and in an attempt to halt Kassam rocket attacks. In the West Bank, men's teams monopolize the only regulation-size playing field, and the women are mostly relegated to playing five-on-five on concrete courts or indoors. The Palestine Football Association only gives the women about 10 percent - the absolute required minimum - of the annual $250,000 it receives from FIFA. That's barely enough for travel expenses to tournaments. But tradition may still be the women's biggest hurdle. Sheikh Saleh Muattan, a preacher at a West Bank mosque with a popular radio call-in show on religious matters, said soccer for women isn't strictly "haram," or forbidden, but seems inappropriate. "Women can practice some sports which fit their nature and delicacy," he said in an interview. "I feel it [soccer] is violent." Haniya al-Bish, a women's activist and member of the Palestinian federation, said that when she tried to form a team in Gaza in 2003, after returning from that year's women's World Cup, she ran into opposition. "After we started training, I began hearing excuses such as 'my brother won't let me play' or 'my father refused,'" she said. "So society has an impact on the enthusiasm of the girls." But most players say their love of the game makes up for most of the difficulties. "I used to play basketball. Soccer is more beautiful. I feel stronger. I just like it," said Amira Hodaly, 18, of Bethlehem. Midfielder Jacklin Jazrawi, 20, said her parents come to her games to cheer, and that she's getting a lot of respect from fellow students at Bethlehem University for playing for Palestinians. On a recent afternoon, the 20-member Bethlehem team trained on the concrete tennis court at Bethlehem University. As dusk settled, coach Emil Hilal drilled shots on goal. "Keep your eye on the goalie," he yelled as the players, ages 14 to 22, lined up to shoot at the net. The goalkeeper was knocked out after a powerful shot hit her hand, and a replacement was sent in. The team's fastest player, Nevine Kleib, 22, sprinted across the court in long pants and a headscarf. Kleib said she's kicked a ball around with her brothers since she was a little girl and dreams of turning pro. Instead, she knows she may have to give up the sport one day. "You know, in our society, the girls have to get married and that may cut me off from football," she said. "But for now, I still play and work." Earlier this year, during an Arab women's tournament in Alexandria, Kleib took off her headscarf for a competitive edge. "I felt it's going to be easier if I just take it off. The field was bigger and required more fitness and speed," she said. It wasn't enough, though. The Palestinians came in last among eight teams, losing all four games. In all, the national team is winless in seven games. But coach Hilal said the women are doing well, considering the logistical problems and lack of preparation. The national team players are restricted from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank and can only meet abroad for brief training sessions before a tournament. Hilal had two days before the Alexandria championships to forge two groups of strangers into a team. Hilal said the Palestinian FA shows little support for his players - no training camps, no uniforms, no salaried staff - and instead gives most of the resources to the men's team. "They are not interested in the girls," he said. Al-Araj, the fitness trainer, said just seeing the young women on the field is rewarding. She said that when she studied physical education in neighboring Jordan some 20 years ago, female students were barred from playing soccer. Instead, she was told to take up aerobic dancing, volleyball or tennis. For now, women's soccer is confined to a small segment of society. Most players attend either elite private schools or universities. On the Bethlehem team, 14 out of 20 players are Christians, reflecting the more liberal attitudes toward women in the Christian community. Hilal said the sport is spreading gradually to younger girls. This year, he began coaching fourth-graders in a Catholic school in the Bethlehem area. One of the brightest stars on the national team is only 12. Jazrawi, the national team player and a fourth-year biology major, said she loves the game so much she's thinking about switching careers and taking up coaching. "I'd like to spread soccer in all of Palestine," she said.