Crossing the chasm in women’s football in Asia and Africa
It unifies, it divides, provides gainful employment and even gives people hope and joy in their darkest hours. Sport is a global phenomenon whose popularity and reach knows no bounds. In almost any country that you venture into, there would be some sport, (which could even be a local one) that runs in the layman’s conversation.
Sport also provides a means of bridging differences and gaps in culture, society and even political ties. Football, the most popular mainstream sport in the world, has had its fair share in all of the above. That’s in the case of men of course, because sadly, in a few pockets of the world, all possible efforts are taken to stymie such sporting movements when it comes to the involvement of women.
Discover Football, a women’s football festival in Berlin, commenced this past Sunday. In the words of Marlene, the Project’s manager: “We welcome all teams that play against the odds in spite of the difficulties they face as female football players, teams that are socially engaged and want to experience the integrative power of football.”
The Libyan women were expected to make the trip to join their sisters from other Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia at the festival. But they were in for a rude shock when their FA decided to ban them from travelling citing Ramadan as the reason; this when the other Muslim countries had absolutely no problems in sending their respective teams.
The late Libyan politician Muammar Gaddafi is derided by many for his dictatorial regime and violation of human rights. Amongst other things though, he did his bit in unifying Arab and African nations, and also allowed women’s football to flourish.
The team trained in secret locations so as to keep them away from the prying eyes of the public, but it was support nonetheless. Since his fall, extremist religious groups have come to play a larger role in the Libyan polity and the repercussions are there to be seen.
Women’s football “is something we cannot have because it does not conform with Sharia law. It invites women to show off and wear clothes that are inappropriate,” said Ansar al-Sharia, the militia linked by some with the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi last September, the Guardian reported.
Salim Jabar, a popular television preacher in Libya, has called for the end of the women’s football team. “This team consists of tall, good-looking young girls, and that’s the last thing this country needs,” he said in a sermon. “For the first day that she [a Libyan woman] signed up for this team, she has sold herself and brought shame on her family,” Jabar added.
Politics, religion and gender issues when combined with sport make for a not so refreshing cocktail.
The ban on the Libyan women came despite them agreeing to the terms of the FA by wearing a blue tracksuit from head to toe as well as the hijab. They even refused to be photographed so as to not upset their association.
The women’s European championship currently going on in Sweden has given us a brilliant demonstration of the quality and skill in women’s football; so did last year’s excellent football event at the London Olympics.
Asian teams have lagged behind a bit in comparison to their western counterparts, which is understandable. As in most other sports, Japan has led the way and China has followed.
The inaugural women’s World Cup in 1991 held in China is a fine example of how a sport can change a nation. China, which were virtually non-existent in the women’s footballing scene, have become big hitters since that World Cup. They finished runners-up in the 1999 edition and finished 4th in the 1995 edition. They were quarter-finalists in two other World Cups.
India too have been active on this front since 1997, when they took part in the World Cup qualifiers after opting to not participate in the first two World Cups. And since 2011, with a lot more backing from the AIFF, the team has been performing better.
India, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Thailand and other South-East Asian companies along with the big two of China and Japan are the major Asian women footballing nations.