Triumph of Women and Sport
Women and girls are at ground zero in the battle for their right to play sports. But it’s a fight that can lead to immense gains for women and their communities.
There it is, the brightly colored photographic evidence of radical change. Girls in cleats and shin guards. Wearing the red and green uniform of Iraq. Playing soccer in Europe. “Most of the Iraqi people don’t believe girls are playing soccer,” Jamil Zina-Zizo says with a small smile. “They see the photos and they still don’t believe it.”
But this is not a photoshopped fabrication. A team of 17-year-old girls from Duhok in the Kurdish northern territory of Iraq traveled last summer to Gothenburg, Sweden, to play in the Gothia Cup, the largest youth tournament in the world.
They marched in the opening ceremony. They danced in the stadium. They played soccer. And—perhaps—their lives were indelibly changed.
Zina-Zizo, a thin, serious girl who served as the captain of her team, describes herself as astonished to be playing sports in Sweden. She thinks she will be changed from the experience. And possibly a part of her culture will be, too.
“We could break the wall between girls’ football and what society thinks about it,” she says, through two translations—from Kurdish to Arabic to English. “We could influence social life, possibly.”
“I feel for the first time that I am a woman, a girl, a team captain, representing my country,” she says. “I can’t put my feelings into words. It is unbelievable.”
From Iraq to Nicaragua, from Papua New Guinea to Nigeria, girls with balls and bats, on tracks and playing fields, are creating a sweaty revolution. They are challenging gender stereotypes, pushing boundaries, and taking on tradition. Increasingly, sport has become a tool for female empowerment around the globe.
In Afghanistan, girls attend a skateboarding school. In Syria, young women play softball. In the slums of Nairobi, adolescent girls learn boxing and other self-defense skills. In Nicaragua, hundreds of girls gather nightly for soccer practice or educational events at a soccer facility called T.E.A.M. Granada. In Pakistan, Right to Play leaders organized a first-ever girls’ volleyball tournament.
The hope is that by giving a girl athletic opportunities, in a safe and supportive environment, change will follow. The lessons that have held true for so many middle-class American girls over the past four decades could become the reality of girls anywhere.
But these athletic revolutionaries must overcome tremendous cultural and traditional barriers before the playing field is even close to being level. “You can’t just give a girl a ball and lives change,” says Awista Ayub, an Afghani-born American who brought a group of girls from Afghanistan to the US to play soccer in 2004. “It’s not that simple.”
Turning sports into a lasting tool of change requires community support, infrastructure, and commitment.
“You can’t talk about this sports experience without talking about the Iraqi situation,” says Ali Alhasnawy, who helped facilitate the Iraqi girls’ trip to Gothenburg. A coach who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, he now lives in Sweden. “People will say, now something will happen. But it depends on the leaders of the country. Do they want to educate girls to be good leaders? Do they accept this? I don’t think so."
Around the world, there are pockets of outreach where girls are being introduced to sports and physical activity. Balls are being rolled out on dirt fields. Basketballs are being dribbled. Races are being run. Girls are moving, learning, laughing, sweating, and working together. . . .