Bahrain recently hosted the 21st Gulf Cup of Nations. A grand tournament involving eight teams from the Middle East.
The Emirati victors beat the talented Iraqi squad for a 2-1 win. They emerged glorious and jubilant. A nation of fans cheering wildly and supporting them.
Among those fans were, for the first time, women.
The semi-final match between the UAE team and Bahrain’s home team was one of the first international matches to host women in a Gulf state. For reasons cited as safety concerns, male chaperones required as well as years of tradition and inaccessibility, women have not gone to cheer football teams. But times are changing and no more than in these conservative, Muslim countries. Women and girls are openly displaying their interest in and allegiance to their national teams.
In the final match between Iraq and UAE, 50 places were arranged on six different flights for women and their chaperones. Nasreen Ali Darwish of the UAE Cycling Federation took on this initiative. She contacted the Emirati Football Association and reserved the places.
There was no hesitation on the part of the Football organization and the supporters flew to Bahrain with their fellow fans.
That women can share in the excitement, moment and joy of an important regional football tournament is unprecedented. Currently, in the Middle East many stadiums are still considered to be a man’s domain.
In Iran, it is illegal, not just culturally and socially unacceptable, for women to attend football matches or even televised events in public.
This issue isn’t only about cultural inequality or traditional gender roles, it is about national pride: “Sport makes everyone connect as it is a mutual language for everyone,” says Dr. Ahmad Alomosh, a Sociologist at University of Sharjah “A victory for a national team is bound to enhance national identity and unite people”.
Dr. Almosh also contends that publicly cheering sports teams represents a “natural progression of Emirati women’s role in society”.
In addition to the legions of female supporters in the Middle East, there are numerous critics of these supporters.
Twitter was ablaze with debate and discussion regarding the “bold” move of many women to travel outside of their country to support a team.
One twitter user stated: “It is sad to see the UAEFA encourages women to unveil and discard their decency under the flag of supportiveness”.
It should be noted that a lot of the women were dressed in long-sleeved t-shirts or long robes with some choosing to wear a headscarf (hijab). Law in Bahrain does not require it.
User @bomoath75 insisted that women at a match would “lose the spirit of modesty and chastity”.
As a footballer, a spirited fan and a woman, I totally am unclear how waving a flag in the stands can compromise chastity. Interestingly, women are also of this opinion. Twitter user @jumaira_ wrote that this idea was “foreign and alien to what we are used to and will distort the image of our country”.
For some the option for women to stay and home and watch the matches is a valid one.
That these female supporters – gasp! – Travel outside of the country to a neighboring one is unfathomable. Women engaging in loud cheering, whistling and clapping may be horrifying and what ultra-conservative folks think is the degradation of women’s expected responsible behavior.
Or it could just be that there is a rise in interest in football among women where there may not have been previously; that girls are not just watching their brothers play but are healthy, active and confidently engaging in sport. That is the most watched sport in the world and that stadiums are creating family spaces, clean washrooms and controlling amount of hooliganism that occurs is good for all involved.
A safe space for football is a critical one.
Almost one quarter of football matches in some parts of Europe are women. They have the resources and interest to participate in Fantasy Leagues, they attend matches and purchase kits and invest in heavily in team spirit. Most are cognizant of that privilege – although it ought to be a right. The right to safety, hope and participation. It is widely known that women in some parts of the Middle East cannot drive or travel without a male relative. But that they may not be welcome in stadiums to simply watch a game is unfathomable.
Most recently there had been a picture of a Muslim female fan in Bradford, England that went viral. This picture was important for many reasons. Firstly, it debunked the myth that women in hijab may not care for football. Second, it showed that there is a place for inclusion and ardent team loyalty from women regardless of race, religion.
This is an important parallel to the current issue in the Middle East. Women are making choices. They are working, earning, raising football lovers – both girls and boys- and to partake in football can only strengthen community bonds. Not to mention that creating lines of sports apparel and merchandise catering to female fans in the Gulf States could be a very, very lucrative initiative. Would be very enticing for clubs to venture into this specialized area.
Women are ferocious and vocal supporters of football clubs. They have been for a long time in various ways. Some pray, some scream, some cheer and all are intense.
One of the most conservative Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia has begun construction of a new soccer arena in Jeddah that will be able to accommodate families, and female journalists and fans. Previously women were not permitted to attend due to a law barring men and women from mingling in public.
Football is the game of the world. It is not a novel idea that women of all ages and backgrounds would be interested in it. Even those from the Middle East.
Overall, the tone is of triumph, happiness. And women should partake in this joy.
There is a lot of work to be done to solidify systematic equality, safety and opportunity for girls and women in education, workplace and in community.
A football stadium is positive place to keep the momentum going. The road to empowerment of women is a long one; it even runs along the pitch.
I will for one be watching, and cheering and supporting the right to participate of these intrepid women just as I cheer at matches.