Demonstrating its skills is just one reason for the United Arab Emirates women’s soccer team’s three-week tour of the United States; projecting the oil-rich Gulf state as a model of equality for women in a world still dominated by traditional gender roles is another.
It is a projection of where the UAE wants to be but is not there yet, To be sure, the UAE has made great strides.
“These girls are pioneers. It was the same thing for Australia. It’s a challenge. But the ball is starting to roll a bit faster,” Connie Selby, the UAE women’s coach and a former Australian national soccer coach and captain told The Washington Times.
Some members of the UAE team initially had to hide from their families what they did in their spare time and often cancelled training when they are unable to sneak away.
Several had long fights at home to win the right to play; one did not talk to her father for a period of time; another was forced to quit the team for a month after her parents were inundated by complaints from friends and relatives. Her parents reneged, but won’t attend games for fear they would be seen by society as overly supporting her.
Nada Yousef al-Hashimi, a vivacious economy ministry official who took up swimming and track in school, chaperones the team when she is not luring foreign investment into the country. She engages critics on the team’s Facebook page, which includes a lively discussion page about the merits of women’s soccer in the Middle East, dozens of team photos and links to YouTube videos.
“We’re still in the beginning phases of developing it to be a part of the society where it’s normal to go to any public playground and find girls playing soccer. We’re not there yet. But we’re trying to set a very high bar, show that there are no limits for women. We’re trying to distinguish the UAE as a little different than the neighborhood,” said Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States.
Dubai ruler and UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his wife, Princess Haya, have sought to reinforce the UAE’s drive to be a Gulf leader in women’s sports by among other things publicly displaying their equestrian enthusiasm. Similarly, Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter, Sheika Maitha, competes in taekwondo and carried her nation’s flag at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Nonetheless, the culture clash in the 2002 comedy film “Bend It Like Beckham” portraying a Sikh daughter’s rebellion against her parents refusal to allow her to pursue football had novelty value for Western audiences; in much of the Middle East it’s a fact of daily life.
Some Middle Eastern countries still ban women’s teams. Existing teams often operate in precarious circumstances. Kuwait only recently lifted its ban on a women’s team. The team was denounced on its return from its first international appearance in the 2010 West Asian Football Federation championship by Islamist lawmakers seeking to ban women from international competitions. A Kuwaiti Salafi lawmaker this month urged the government to cancel plans to hold a football tournament for women.
Things are even tougher in Saudi Arabia. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been pressuring Saudi Arabia to create frameworks for women’s sports.
The issue of women’s sports has sparked furious debate among the country’s clergy and in the media. Physical education classes are banned in state-run Saudi girl’s schools and female athletes are not allowed to participate in the Olympics. Women’s games and marathons are often canceled.
Some clerics argue that women’s sports are corrupting and satanic, and spread decadence. They warn that running and jumping can damage a woman’s hymen and ruin her chances of getting married. Nonetheless, women have quietly been establishing their own soccer and other sports teams with the backing of members of the ruling Al Saud family and under the wings of hospitals and “health clubs.”
Prominent Saudis, including King Abdullah’s daughter, have moreover spoken out in favor of women’s participation in sports. In August of last year, an 18-year old female Saudi equestrian rider won a show jumping bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.
The overall number of Muslim women competing is also increasing. Some 150 female athletes from 18 predominantly Muslim countries participated in the Beijing Games, a fivefold increase from the 1988 Seoul Games, according to the IOC. Future World Cup host Qatar sent no women to Beijing but was represented by 64 women at last year’s Asian Games.
“We’re changing the mindset. When I was young and our country was new, the older girls were not finishing school. They were not allowed. Now, almost all finish school and go to university also. I loved sports in school. But I didn’t get to play soccer. Even 10 years ago, there were not these opportunities,” UAE women’s soccer committee chair Hafsa al-Ulama told The Washington Times.
Yet, cultural issues are evident even within the UAE women’s team. Most players wear standard-issue shorts and T-shirts but some prefer the hijab, a headscarf that covers a women’s hair, ears and neck, which is banned by world soccer body FIFA as a religious symbol. Iran was last month effectively disqualified for 2012 London Olympics because its women’s team appeared with hijabs on the pitch.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)