Soccer-loving young girls in northern Kenya may never have heard of Elham Sayed Javad, but they have a lot to thank her for. If it was not for the Canadian-based fashion designer, they would not be able to play in official tournaments.
Javad created a hijab which operates magnetically. It opens and releases if it is pulled from anywhere around the neck area. Her design was one of the two approved by FIFA in June last year, when it lifted its ban on the religious garment, which had been in place for five years due to safety concerns.
The ruling means women and girls who wear the hijab for religious reasons can now play in competitive soccer competitions. Having overcome that hurdle, all that was left for the girls from the Horn of Africa (Hodi region) was to find a competition to participate in.
Last year’s East Africa Cup presented them with a rare opportunity. The event is organized for youths between the ages of 11 and 16. It combines a range of sporting and cultural events and is lauded for highlighting gender issues. Apart from that, the team have little else.
There is no girls’ or women’s league to play in, and any ambitions of representing the country, while admirable, may prove little more than a pipe dream.
The level the Kenyan girls would have looked at, the under-17 event, appears to be one of the most problematic in their country and many others on the continent.
Kenya withdrew from the under-17 World Cup qualifiers in August because of what they claim was a logistical issue with their opponents, Equatorial Guinea. Kenya claimed the Equatoguineans’ communication regarding match details such as the venue and the kick-off time, as well as confirmation of visas, was received too late.
What actually occurred is not clear. Equatorial Guinea’s media had reported that Kenya may not arrive, but on the match day, August 16, activities went ahead as planned. The officials were present, the Equato-
guinean team warmed up, and stood to attention for their national anthem.
They were even instructed to kick off, and did, scoring a goal before the match was awarded in their favor because of the Kenyan no-show.
Farce aside, Equatorial Guinea have now qualified for the final playoffs which will decide which three African sides travel to Costa Rica for next year’s under-17 women’s World Cup. They will play Ghana in a two-legged tie this month.
The other clashes will be between Zambia, who beat Botswana to advance to this stage, and South Africa, who received a bye into the deciding stage. Nigeria were also given a free passage to the last six and will face Morocco.
For Kenya, all that’s left is disappointment and questions. While some of their aspiring players received a boost in the form of the lifting of the ban on the hijab, others were left high and dry by the under-17 shenanigans.
Their coach, Florence Adhiambo, says incidents like this make it difficult for the girls to stay motivated.
“It’s heartbreaking to see things like this happen. It discourages girls who have just started with their careers,” she says.
She is not alone in these sentiments. Former Nigeria captain Flo-rence Omagbemi, who was on the organizing committee for the 2012 under-17 World Cup, and remains on it for next year’s event, echoed those thoughts at a meeting in Zurich.
“All is not well with the game at the moment in Africa and we need to act fast to salvage the situation,” she says. “We have a lot of talented young girls with great passion for the game but they have no support from their federations. The soccer administrators are not doing much to help improve women’s soccer.”
The most obvious example of that is in the lack of fixtures. The African Women’s Championship has been taking place biennially since 1998 (the men’s has been going since 1957) and age-group qualifications are also held every two years. But the number of countries pulling out means the competition is often marred by the cancellation of fixtures.
More tellingly, there are no fully professional leagues in the women’s game on the continent. That leaves it lagging behind places like the United States, where the women’s game is run the same way as the men’s.
As a consequence, Nadi Sora, the coach of the Hodi girls’ team, explains they don’t have much to aspire to.
“There are no female role models, so there is still discrimination against girls. The whole community enjoys sport, but the girls do not have leagues, we just have tournaments, so we have to wait for a tournament to compete,” she says.
One woman to look up to is the president of Burundi’s football association, Lydia Nsekera, the first woman on FIFA’s executive committee, and who was profiled on these pages last month. Nsekera agrees that without regular competitive matches, women’s soccer will continue to lag behind. She has also identified financial reasons as one of the main roadblocks to developing the women’s game.
“In Africa, there are people who question the rationale for funding female football. But I am confident that, with the right encouragement, women’s football will evolve and reach the level of men,” Nsekera says decisively.
South Africa is one place where corporates have been captivated by the women’s game. In June, Sasol announced a four-year extension of its sponsorship for Banyana Banyana, the national women’s team, and the semi-professional soccer league for women. Many players in the league combine playing soccer while they are still studying.
At least in South Africa, there is some form of encouragement for girls to think seriously about the game. In other countries, especially those with more traditionalist ideas of the role of women, it is frowned upon for girls to take up the game.
FIFA’s unbanning of the hijab has helped for some, but Sora reveals that the Hodi girls’ team still face reprisal from their neighbors.
“The community looks down on us, they curse us and say things to us like, ‘you should not disrespect your culture’, but we continue to play, because when we play football, we are free.”
What the youngsters need are more people like Nassra Juma Mohammed, the founder of Zanzibar’s Women Fighters FC. Mohammed was inspired by the Swedish women’s soccer team, who visited the island in 1998, and wanted to start her own club.
The team are another of Africa’s success stories. They are sustainable because they draw funds from a small shop Mohammed started. And they are successful because their determination, more than their love of the game, allows them to challenge everyone from teachers to their husbands as they fight for their right to play soccer.
Some of the people standing in their way are hard-line religious men who claim women should not play soccer because “they shouldn’t wear shorts”. Even though these women continue to rebel against such restrictive ideals, if any one of them was to agree with the idea or felt she would have a better chance if she covered up, she need only don one of Javad’s hijabs to adhere to Islam, stay on the right side of the FIFA’s laws and still play the beautiful game.