Gaza women’s football team plays against odds
Palestinian sportswomen determined to represent country internationally despite Israeli restrictions.
By Iqbal Tamimi – LONDON
Most of the team’s members come from conservative families
Gaza is full of stories of brave women, under the Israeli caused rubble there are many stories of women with hopes and great expectations, pioneers in every field.
Being a Palestinian journalist in exile, there was no other way to interview my people and interact with my colleagues in Palestine but through the internet. I have started a feature by interviewing the Palestinian journalist Nelly Ismail Yassin Almasry through the net because Israel’s enforced laws made it difficult for us to meet in person. Our discussions took longer than expected because electricity blackouts happened many times in Gaza where she lives and the internet connection died with it, but I was determined to write about the other side of Gaza, the side that keeps rising from under the ashes like a bird with a thousand wings because its people refuse to surrender to defeat. Nelly is the daughter of Ismail Almasry, the Football Coach of the National Football Team in Gaza and a colleague working as a sport journalist and a member of the first women’s soccer team in Gaza.
The first Palestinian all women’s football team was established in 2003. Even though they had very limited resources, the women kept practicing and playing against other Arab women’s leagues whenever they were allowed to leave Gaza. The Gaza women’s soccer team suffered many difficulties and faced many obstacles because of the limited resources, the absence of properly built stadiums, the absence of security and the continuous closures of checkpoints by the Israeli occupation forces thus hindering them from practicing or travelling to play against other teams, even though the team wanted badly to represent Palestine on an international, level they were deprived of this dream as they were of many other dreams.
The sport movement started to come back to life in 1994, supported by the Palestinian National Authority. Some attention has been directed to develop sport facilities like maintaining sport stadiums. One of such efforts was building a stadium in the city of Jericho, which has encouraged some athletes to set up a female football team for the first time in Palestinian history, but the idea did not receive adequate attention or support because it was novel. Unfortunately that lack of interest eventually lead to freezing the idea for a while.
But again the Arab and International Federation of Football requested activating the Arab women’s football teams in their countries, and encouraged it by allocating 10% of its financial support to the union to support the Palestinian women’s football teams.
The Palestinian union adopted the idea of forming a female soccer team, and assigned this task to Mrs Haniya Albish. This decision was formally adopted by the International Football Federation who sent Mrs Haniya Albish in 2003 to attend a symposium on women’s football in the framework of the World Cup for women in America, thus starting the nucleus of the team at Bethlehem under supervision of Mrs Samar Ala’araj who was in charge of coordinating sports activities at Bethlehem University.
At the same time, Mr Hussein Shakhtour was forming another team in the Directorate of Youth and Sports, the two teams were merged into one sponsored team, supervised and trained by Bethlehem University according to their best of abilities considering the general situation in Palestine.
Then Mrs Haneyeh Albish, a member of the Palestinian union team of soccer, head of women’s football union, along with Mr. Adnan Abu Zayed attended the symposium of women’s football in “West Asia” organized by the International Federation of Football “FIFA” in March 2006 to develop the game in Palestine.
The Palestinian women’s football team participated for the first time ever in a tournament held in Jordan 2004 along with 10 other Arab women’s teams; the event was organized by the Jordanian Orthodox club. The Palestinian team was formed from a number of players from the teams of Ramallah, the Evangelical Friends, Gaza, and Saryeat Ramallah group. The created team participated again in another event held in April 2005 in Jordan organized by Amman Club playing along other 10 Arab women’s teams.
The following participation was in the West Asia Championship for Women’s Football in Jordan held from 23 of September to the 1st of October 2005, during which the Palestinian team played against Jordan, Syria, Iran and Bahrain.
Then the Gaza team participated in the Arab Championship for women’s soccer in Alexandria, Egypt from 14-28 April 2006, playing against Syria, Tunisia and Egypt. Unfortunately all forms of sports in Gaza now are totally paralyzed.
Nelly grew up in a family of sportsmen who understood her passion for sport, her father was the coach of a team, and her brothers were football players who understood that football is just one of her choices.
Before getting involved in sport journalism Nelly played volleyball at Al Ahli Palestinian club in Gaza. In 1996 and while she was still a university student, she joined the first football team for women in Gaza. Some families looked with suspicion at women playing football, but Nelly had no problem with that since she was brought up in a family involved with this sport, she was encouraged by her parents, besides the fact that three of her sisters joined the team as well. Her father was always keen to follow his daughter’s progress and used to go to the club to watch them training. They practiced 3 times every week for 18 months.
Nelly’s beginning with sports media goes back to the end of 2001 when she was a trainee at the Voice of Freedom Radio in Gaza, she progressed in her job to become a broadcaster of sports programs, during the same period she joined another media establishment as a supervisor of its website, but her post did not last long for economic reasons leading to the closure of the website.
Nelly confessed, ‘I have started to write sports reports in 2002 but I started playing football earlier, during 1996. Football is considered by many in Gaza as an unusual field for women, but strangely enough, most of the members of the Gaza women’s soccer team came from conservative Palestinian families, the majority of the members lived in the refugee camps, but still they have proved that they are able to commit themselves to this sport in a way that changed the society’s perception of women football players, and accept the idea to a point that the players started to receive support from the International Federation and the Arab federation, besides the FIFA and other unions.
Nelly is not involved in kicking the ball only, but she is a keen football fan as well, she talked to me about watching most matches played around the world and her support for some Arab leagues like the Saudi Arabian team Alhilal Club. She told me that and among her favourite players is Yasser Kahtani the best Arab player during the Asia championships 2007; she is also a fan of Nawwaf Altimyat, and Mohammad Shalhoob.
Many people were enraged that one Israeli player was denied a visa to Dubai to the tennis tournament held lately, claiming sport should be independent of politics, but it seems not many understood how important it is to boycott Israel’s sport to make a point, Israel bombed the Palestinian playing courts, banned Palestinian players from travel or participation, imprisoned and detained Palestinian players, attacked many of them, and these facts can be brought up and made known should Israel be boycotted. Israel’s policies are aimed at killing any hope of Palestinians participating in any sport where they can represent their country on international level.
Nelly finished her comment by saying ‘unfortunately there has been always a negative attitude towards women’s journalistic work in general, let alone working in the sports field where the journalist has to shuttle between clubs and matches. Some Gaza communities were not in favour of women practicing this sport or working in its media field, but we never gave up. All I hope for now is some peace, and to see that our stadiums will be rebuilt again after everything has been destroyed in Gaza by Israel’s attacks. The ball now is in the International court.