Great changes are afoot in Saudi – could a women’s football team be the key to ultimate triumph?
Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Football may be called the beautiful game, but when it comes to gender equality, there has always been an ugly side to it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Saudi Arabia, where young girls aren’t allowed to openly play football at grassroots or elite level. Up until January this year, women couldn’t even enter football stadiums, but as the Kingdom slowly grants more rights to them, a professional female team perhaps isn’t too far away.
Saudi footballers Saja Kamal and Munira Al Hamdan have been campaigning for a team since they took up the sport. “A recognized Saudi female national team is getting close,” Al Hamdan says. “We can’t rush it, though, but knowing we have HRH Princess Reema Bint Bandar, deputy president of Saudi Arabia’s Sport Authority, on our side, really helps.”
“If I were to take a wild guess, I would say we might have an official team by 2019,” adds Kamal, a self-professed rebel who – with silvery-blonde bleached hair, piercings, and tattoos – is certainly not your typical Saudi woman. “One challenge is even if we get a team, there may still be a debate as to whether young female footballers can be televised or photographed. Families will also take some convincing that football is a legitimate career choice for their daughters,” she says. “We also need domestic clubs first before we can compete properly on the international stage, otherwise there might not be enough players to even start a national team.”
Kamal holds two world records, having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last June to take part in the highest-altitude football match, and then journeying to Jordan’s Dead Sea in April this year to play in the lowest-elevation game as part of two initiatives by the non-profit organization Equal Playing Field, which promotes sports development for girls and women around the globe.
“Princess Reema alerted me to Equal Playing Field and it was a natural fit,” explains Juventus supporter Kamal. “I have been involved in football since I was four. It has been my true passion and something I have never lost. Equal Playing Field allowed me to travel to Kilimanjaro and the Dead Sea and play in two world record matches as well as network with other players from all around the world. The experience made me even more determined to start a Saudi national team. I was just as good as all the other internationals in Jordan, yet they all had caps and I am not even recognized by my country. My drive now is to make life easier for the next generation of Saudi female footballers.”
Equal Playing Field’s Jordan quest was endorsed by former Fifa presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Al Hussein and former vice-captain of the Jordan women’s national football team Farah Azab, who is now a Dubai resident. Prince Hussein has been pivotal in promoting gender equality in football. He was the main force behind bringing the Fifa U-17 Women’s World Cup to Jordan in 2017, while last April the region hosted the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, with Japan beating Australia 1-0 to lift the trophy. The 42-year-old also built a US $1.5 million pitch in Ghor Al Safi – a closed community near the Dead Sea – allowing Equal Playing Field to break its latest world record.
“Jordan is leading the way in the Middle East with promoting women’s football,” says the prince, who hasn’t ruled out running again for Fifa president. “Football should be available to both sexes. It is a game that unifies, not divides, so it’s sad to think half of the population are denied access to it in certain parts of the world. Equal Playing Field aims to address this and helping them break a record to do so was a natural and important partnership. There is unfortunately still a stigma in the Middle East in certain countries or communities around young girls openly playing sport. We must always be respectful of Arab culture, but we also can’t have double standards. If football is fine for a boy to play in Jordan or Saudi Arabia, why can’t it be for a girl?”
Azab believes Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority can learn a lot from Prince Hussein. Since he took charge of the Jordan Football Association in 1999, she’s noticed a significant shift in the profile of the Jordanian women’s national team, who remain on course to qualify for the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup in France. If they succeed, it will be their first-ever appearance at the tournament.
“Women’s football in Jordan is still quite new,” says Azab. “The national team was only founded in 2005. Back then we had a 33-year-old goalkeeper and me and my teammates were just 15. We are now the top- ranked team out of all the Arab nations and ninth overall in Asia. We dream of reaching the World Cup; a very realistic goal.” Prince Hussein has been a tireless supporter of the team and campaigned against Fifa’s 2007 ban against players wearing the hijab. The ban was lifted in 2014. “Muslim women all over the world should be grateful to the Prince since that debate transcended sport. It was about basic rights and dignity,” Azab remarks.
Back in Saudi Arabia, the men’s team will be off to the Fifa World Cup in Russia this month, having dramatically qualified for their fifth tournament courtesy of a Fahad Al Muwallad wonder goal in a 1-0 victory over Japan last September. No women were allowed into the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium to watch that game – but in January they were finally granted access to games in Jeddah, Riyadh, and Damman.
“To a non-Saudi, entry for women into stadiums probably looks inconsequential, but it’s a monumental move,” says Kamal. “It shows women are being given basic rights to watch football. It involves us and is hopefully a sign that we will be able to play on the pitches soon. It is the first stage of acceptance.” It is thought Saudi Arabia has aspirations to one day host a Fifa World Cup but could only convince the governing body by guaranteeing both sexes will be able to enjoy the tournament and enter stadiums to watch games. The success of the men’s team is thus compelling the Kingdom to give women more access to sport by putting Saudi Arabian football firmly in the global spotlight. Negative press could set a potential bid back decades.
Perhaps more significantly, the positive change seen over the past five months is also down to a more liberal Crown Prince. Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has implemented encouraging social reforms as part of the Vision 2030 program, which aims to grant more freedom to Saudi women and follows the historic decision to allow Saudi women to drive. This will allow potential female football teams to get easily around the country to play matches. “Being able to drive frees us,” smiles Al Hamdan. “We don’t have to save half of our salary just to pay a driver. We can be more productive. It is also great to think I can get in a car and go and watch a football game with my entire family.”
Sport in Saudi Arabia is clearly moving in the right direction. Last year, Jeddah hosted the Kingdom’s first official football tournament for women, featuring six teams competing at a private school in front of an all-female audience. (The country also introduced a women’s basketball tournament for universities last November, as well as hosting its first- ever women’s squash tournament.) To the outside eye, these might all seem like small steps, but it constitutes significant progress since 2012, the year Saudi women participated in the Olympic Games for the first time. Track athlete Sarah Attar and 16-year-old judoka Wojdan Shahrkhani arrived in London as heroes and role models, but back home they were trending under an unsightly hashtag on Twitter.
“There was such a backlash over the girls who went to London creating perhaps more negatives than positives,” Kamal says. “Sarah Attar was verbally abused and a disgusting hashtag went viral on social media. That’s not OK. These are inspiring women playing sport. They are doing nothing wrong and no one has the right to degrade them.”
She does think that things are slowly moving in the right direction in the Kingdom, though. “It’s six years on from those Games and there is much more pride about putting girls in the cultural hijab on the world stage. It is a chance to showcase our heritage. The next step is simple: for Saudi women to play sport without fear of abuse. I think we’re getting there, especially in football. There is definitely an increasing acceptance that women can and should play the beautiful game. As a sex we are defined by so much more than just hair or makeup, or in Saudi the burqas that cover this. We can be doctors, economists, lawyers, geologists, and even footballers. The more people question our basic right to choose who we are, the more resolved we become to fight for change.”
Photography: Jacob and Carol
Styling: Samantha Francis
Hair and Makeup: Athina Doutis
Shot on location at Koora Dome, Dubai