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Triumph of Women and Sport


© Emily Anne Epstein |

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.

"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."

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. . . .


Mercy Kareithi's picture

Let's talk about sports

Great piece Ann, great strides in women empowerment through radical means. Quoting Albert Einstein, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them", so way to go soccer, basketball, squash, tennis, name it all.

Soccer has been used in kenya to make peace especially after the PEV-Post election violence in 2008. Some TV programmes have used soccer as the story line. One such programme was 'THE TEAM' that showed how members of a new Kenyan football club learnt to deal with their tribal, ethnic, social and economic divisions.

Viva sports...on y va sweaty revolution!!!

I'm more than a bit shocked to note that you've run, with this article on women being triumphant in sport, a photograph taken by a very talented friend of mine -- without crediting her! For a website with such obvious high intentions this is certainly a low action. Karma is a real bitch, and I expect she'll bite you hard for this if it's not corrected pronto.

I've been on the side of women for 64 years minus one day, at this particular point in my life, and want you to know I registered with World Pulse TM (!) just to give you a piece of my mind. That said, if you wish to redeem yourself and acknowledge my friend's talent as well as appropriating it for your worthy cause, get back to me and I'll remind you who she is. You've got my e-mail address.

Corine Milano's picture

Cookie in New Jersey, Thank

Cookie in New Jersey,

Thank you for your concern about Emily Anne Epstein's photo. It is always our policy to give due credit and compensation to the wonderful photographers who make World Pulse Magazine's aesthetic possible, and we regret that a misunderstanding has lead to this situation. We are in touch with your friend and working on making it right.


Corine Milano
Managing Editor
World Pulse Magazine

Tshego Jeremiah's picture

Women and Sport

It is with great pride and joy that I come across this page, I come from a small country in Africa called Botswana. Our population is just over 2million, I work for a sports organisation where we encourage women in sports, one of our projects is called Women and Sports in Botswana. Recently Botswana won the bid to host the world international conference on women and sport in 2018, the past recent one was in Helsinki Finland, where 800 delegates from across the globe attended. The International Working Group on women and sport is an independent body which aims to promote awareness of girls and women sport, to seek inclusion of issues to women and sport on the agendas of major international conferences, to support national, regional and international networks for women and sport development amongst others. I am part of the Local organising Committee for this amazing conference to be held in our home country in 2018, events will be held leading to the conference, so anyone interested in being a part of this initiative, please log on to our website on, and also go into our face book page, international working group on women and sport, and please like the page. Hope to unite women in sport across the continent and the rest of the world.

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