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Soccer Offers a Shot at a Bigger Goal

Original illustration by Elizabeth Long '24, an Illustration major at RISD

The ball snakes from left to right, slicing across the glossy gym floor as our opponents close in on the goal. With five minutes left in the game, they are sharp-set on breaking the tie. And, unfortunately for my team, their odds look pretty good. 

Their best player races intently toward the goal, weaving in and out of our wall of defenders until I am the only person standing between him and the goalie. His leg rewinds to shoot. I form my clammy hands into fists and force open my eyes, resisting the urge to squint. I wave my foot around wildly in front of me with the skill of someone who can count the number of soccer games they’ve played in on one hand. By some stroke of beginner’s luck, my foot finds the ball and kicks it forward. It cuts into the midfield. We score. The gym echoes with a remix of cheers and high-fives. 

We talked about that game for the rest of my six-week stay in Oman. It was not just about emerging victorious in the match, but rather, this victory represented the culmination of our efforts to obtain permission for the women in my study abroad program to play soccer alongside our male peers and teachers. What was really amazing about that game was the fact that three American women were on the court, contrary to all gender norms in Oman. Our program directors initially told us that it would be impossible for us to participate. Yet after we expressed repeated interest and demonstrated a real knowledge of the sport, they gave us a shot. Over time, the experience of playing together cultivated unbreakable bonds that inspired broader changes in their views of women’s athletic capabilities. Soccer provided my friends and me with the opportunity to challenge rigid gender norms—and it could do the same for Omani women at large. 

Soccer’s extraordinary appeal makes it a remarkably effective launching pad to improve women’s rights in the Arab world. Supporting women’s soccer teams unlocks pathways for women’s participation in a variety of different spheres, including political organization and celebratory displays of national identity. Whether it’s on an individual and informal level—like my own experience playing soccer in Oman—or at the professional level, normalizing and broadcasting women’s athletic capabilities is a powerful tool to unravel limitations placed on women’s social and political freedoms.  

Soccer in the Middle East, as in much of the rest of the world, has captivated the general public. “Egyptians,” the New York Times writes “are attached to soccer the way the French are to wine.” Soccer is the most celebrated sport in the Arab world. The team-oriented aspect of the game forges connections between players that build community and contribute to the sport’s intrinsic association with national culture. Egyptian writer Nasser Iraq refers to soccer as his first love, recalling scrimmages with his friends as daily occurrences that formed an instrumental part of his childhood. Playing soccer was a pivotal bonding experience for Iraq and his neighbors growing up, just as it was for me while visiting Oman and for every boy living in the village I was staying in. 

Soccer is also inextricably linked to political movements, acting as a microcosm for ongoing political struggles. A commonly asked question in Egypt is: Do you support Al Ahly or Zamalek? These are the two largest soccer clubs in the nation. However, they are just as much political organizations as they are soccer teams. Founded in 1907, Al Ahly started as a magnet for fans disillusioned with colonial rule—their president in 1956 was none other than former Egyptian president and revolutionary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. To this day, the league continues to attract supporters discontented with government corruption and elite dominance. Their archrival Zamalek was formed in 1911 as a mouthpiece for the monarchy. During the Arab Spring, the Al Ahly ultras—an extreme branch of Al Ahly fans—staged a series of protests to speak out against former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. These protests played a significant role in his eventual overthrow in 2011. 

Because of its access to culture and politics, soccer could be a vehicle for allowing women to participate in the political movements and cultural connections that are sparked in soccer fields and stadiums, as well as backyards and playgrounds, across the Middle East. However, soccer’s full potential for charting new ground in women’s rights is not being realized because of restrictions and limitations placed on women’s participation. 

In some Middle Eastern countries, even attending a soccer game as a woman is challenging. Iran provides an example. Many women are forced to dress as men in order to enter the Azadi stadium in Tehran, furtively slipping past security guards to sidestep Iran’s ban on women attending soccer games. Twenty-nine-year-old Sahar Khodayari was arrested by the morality police for cross-dressing to watch a soccer game live. In September 2019, Khodayarie set herself on fire outside the courthouse after finding out that she would have to serve six months in prison. Her death was a call to action, spotlighting the crippling lack of women’s rights in the country. Regulations barring women from games are still in place, although a few exceptions were made due to intensifying pressure from FIFA and international audiences following Khodayari’s self-immolation. 

Not all countries are as rigid as Iran. Many allow women to spectate and participate in the sport freely. However, a combination of cultural norms, religious tensions, familial pressures, and societal stigmas still dissuade women from playing soccer. In Morocco, a country that as of 2008 boasts a national league with 24 teams, women are discouraged from playing soccer because they are told that it poses a threat to their femininity. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) requires women to seek permission from their fathers to play soccer. In some cases, women’s fathers are their biggest supporters. But in others, they serve as an insurmountable obstacle. Ayesha, a player on the UAE’s women’s national team, lives a double life, concealing her soccer career from her father by using a fake surname. She said in a 2018 interview that if her father found out about her soccer career he would “pull me out of school and not allow me to continue my education.” 

Beyond social pressures, there are economic barriers to women’s equal participation. Women’s soccer is not seen as profitable in the Arab world. The women’s soccer league in Morocco is granted a mere $3,000 a year from the Moroccan Football Federation to fund everything from travel expenses to uniforms to coaches, while male teams receive income from ticket sales and are often the targets of wealthy donors and sponsorships. 

In these countries, establishing a women’s team is only half the battle. And women are left to fight the other half on their own. “An attitude of ‘we have done enough, girls have a league and are allowed to play,’ has developed among government officials and local leaders,” reported Nicole Matuska for the Middle East Institute.

Even with these limitations, existing women’s soccer teams are making differences just as the game did for my group in Oman. For instance, Honey Thaljieh, co-founder and former captain of the women’s national soccer team in Palestine, initially faced resistance from her father for her soccer pursuits. As the team garnered more publicity in the media, his mindset changed. Thaljieh stated in a 2021 interview that her father “became proud seeing that I am portrayed in TVs and magazines and newspapers, raising up the voice, fighting for other girls, fighting for humanity, fighting for rights […] So for me, football was the way, actually, to fight for a lot of issues.” 

As Thalijeh’s story demonstrates, soccer has an innate ability to pull people together, while exhibiting female prowess. So, as existing limitations to women’s participation erode, soccer can become an even more important engine for furthering women’s status and rights. 

Indeed, there is academic and research-based support for this. In Women’s Studies Quarterly, Martha Brady wrote that “by seeing girls in this new action-oriented role, boys learn about the strengths, capabilities and contributions of girls and women, which in turn may begin to reshape male perception of appropriate roles for females.” A psychology theory called the contact hypothesis seems to back this idea, asserting that “social prejudices between groups can be reduced through meaningful intergroup interaction.” This theory was tested by Stanford University on a soccer field in 2020. Experimenters had Christians and Muslims in northern Iraq play soccer together, finding that, through the sport, religious tensions were assuaged and friendships were formed between the players. Soccer could have a similar effect on gender as it did for religion in this study. 

I began with a personal experience about a recreational soccer game in Oman that challenged cultural norms and cultivated incredible connections. That anecdote is a tiny window into a much broader phenomenon: the power of soccer in the broader fight to achieve greater women’s equality in the Middle East. By sharing the sweat, effort, disappointment, and triumph on the field, or the enthusiasm and euphoria in the stands, soccer helps fans and players alike break down barriers. This is exactly what the women’s rights movement in the Arab world needs.