Popular revolts in the past two years have
toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen;
sparked a bloody civil war in Syria and prompted numerous other states
to adopt policies designed to shield themselves against a wave of
protest that is unlikely to leave any Middle Eastern nation untouched.
A statement at the end of the seminar
chaired by FIFA Vice President and AFDP Chairman Prince Ali Bin Al
Hussein defined “an athletic woman” as “an empowered woman who further
empowers her community.” In a rebuttal of opposition to women’s soccer
among some Islamists across the region and more conservative segments of
Middle Eastern society, the seminar stressed that women’s soccer did not
demean cultural and traditional values.
In doing so, the associations backed by
representatives of the United Nations, the Union of European Football
Associations (UEFA), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and the
English Football Association, put themselves at the forefront of efforts
to secure equality and women’s rights. The seminar’s statement
emphasized the right of women to play soccer irrespective of culture,
religion and race; a women’s right to opt for soccer as a career rather
than only as a sport; and soccer’s ability to promote gender equality
and level the playing field on and off the pitch.
The statement called further for the
appointment of women to the boards of WAFF member associations,
establishment of a WAFF women’s committee, creation of Under-16 and
Under-19 women competitions in the Middle East (West Asia) as well as
the compulsory rotation of hosting of subsidized WAFF women
With Saudi Arabia unlikely to comply with
the initiative, It was not immediately clear whether member associations
who refused to participate would be sanctioned, and if so, how. The
statement, however, singled out Saudi Arabia by explicitly stating that
the kingdom would be included in women’s tournaments. The statement said
it would kick start its campaign with a WAFF Girls Football Festival on
International Women’s Day on March 8.
In campaigning for women’s rights, WAFF
has its work cut out for it not only with regard to Saudi Arabia but
also in relation to many of its members who did sign on to the focus on
women. “Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include
family, religion, politics, and culture,” said a recent study entitled
‘Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab’ by Geoff Harkness, a sociologist
at Northwestern University in Qatar, and one of his basketball playing
students, Samira Islam.
Resistance to women’s sports is moreover
not restricted to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa.
Palestine’s women soccer team includes 14 Christians and only four
Muslims but a majority of the team has similar tales to tell about the
obstacles they needed to overcome and the initial resistance they met
from their families.
Human Rights Watch last year accused Saudi
Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative
Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that
will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the
requirements for marriage. The group’s charges contained in a report
entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came on the heels of the kingdom
backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to
allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches
because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch
games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.
Saudi Arabia, which does not have physical
education for girls in schools and has hired consultants to draft its
first ever five-year national sports plan but for men only, bowed to
pressure last year to field for the first time ever women athletes at an
international tournament, the London Olympics. It did so by fielding two
expatriate Saudi females.
Women nonetheless play an important role
in sporadic anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia, a country where
discontent is simmering at the surface. Authorities earlier this month
arrested 18 women in Buraida, a bulwark of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s
puritan interpretation of Islam, who were protesting the long-term
detention of relatives without charges on suspicion of terrorism.
Women in Iran have the right to play
provided their uniforms are compliant with Islamic precepts but like in
Saudi Arabia are also barred from attending matches in all-men stadiums
as spectators. Two women highlighted the issue during a World Cup
qualifier last year when they smuggled themselves into the stadium
dressed as men only to reveal themselves publicly after the match.
For their part, Kuwaiti Islamists
denounced the Gulf University for Science and Technology’s organization
of a soccer tournament for Gulf women teams. “Women playing football is
unacceptable and contrary to human nature and good customs. The
government has to step in and drop the tournament,” Kuwait’s Al Wasat
newspaper quoted Member of Parliament Waleed al-Tabtabai as saying at
Mr. Tabtabai was one of a number of
deputies who earlier criticized the government and sports executives for
allowing the Kuwaiti women’s national soccer team to take part in the
Third West Asian Women Soccer Tournament in Abu Dhabi. The members of
parliament charged that the women’s participation had been illegal and a
waste of money. “Football is not meant for women, anyway,” Mr. Tabtabai
Prince Ali has however put conservatives
on the defensive with his successful campaign last year to get FIFA to
agree to observant Muslim soccer players wearing a headdress that
complies with Islamic precepts as well as the world soccer body’s safety
and security standards. The move set the stage for the WAFF campaign by
taking away one major obstacle to women’s sports having the same status
of the athletic endeavors of men.
[James M. Dorsey is a
senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture,
and the author of The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.]