Black Queens and Super Falcons dare to transgress on a ‘crooked field’

Martha Saavedra

M Saavedra

One of the important implications of Saavedra’s research into women’s sport in West Africa is discovery of the extent to which football helps define masculinity in much of the world. “For a woman to play [football] in many places is a transgression,” Saavedra says in our Sept 4 podcast (see below for download). “People think of it as saying something about what it means to be a man.”

Saavedra herself reflects on a playing and coaching history that entailed training in the early 1980s on a “crooked” field at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College)—“literally crooked up and down and side to side, both ways.” The women soccer players were denied access to the gridiron surface; similarly, they were denied varsity status for three years, until the athletic administration relented. (For more on Saavedra’s background in soccer, see her essay “Excavating the Field.”)

The narrative of women’s play in Africa might be constructed using the rubric of space. In some cases, occupying public space as a footballer constitutes a statement of socio-economic or political independence. In field work in Senegal, Saavedra writes of discovering the fear that football “will masculinize women and girls.” She continues:

Unlike discussions in the West, a consideration of muscles, femininity and sexuality in Senegal is not (yet) an issue about suspected lesbianism, but about fertility and socio-economic status. Competing femininities reflect this: the rural, muscled, toiling agrarian woman versus the more privileged, urban woman who need not labour physically. In the urban milieu where sport is most common, there exist two idealized femininities that are decidedly non-muscular: the disquette (young, slim, Western-oriented) and the drianke (large, soft, round and economically established). Beauty contests extolling both ideals are popular. Athletic women have to navigate around these images. (236)

In Dakar, Senegal, students view team handball, basketball, volleyball and gymnastics as better feminine exemplars than football, introduced by French soldier-occupiers. But the gender appropriateness of a sport remains in the eyes of the beholder. Saavedra says, “In Senegal, when I was working there, people would say, ‘Football is too rough for women,’ whereas, ‘Basketball is graceful and gentle.’ I went and watched many women’s basketball games in Senegal, and these women were tough and rough and pushing each other around.”

But football, unlike other games, carries a culture-specific gender marker. In Kenya, where Saavedra has also done research, organizers of the Mathare Youth Sports Association in Nairobi—Africa’s largest youth organization—have had to negotiate the unique concerns that parents have for girls. Specifically, parents feared for girls’ safety in traveling to or from football matches and training and that their participation in MYSA’s football programs might bring dishonor to the family or cause girls to neglect family duties. Pressures exist to confine girls’ lives to domestic life, according to an assessment of the MYSA girls’ program (Letting Girls Play):

While in many countries “public space” is not legally defined, there are designated places where citizens can go for recreation, education, entertainment, and to participate in political life. Typically, the kinds of public spaces that are seen as legitimate venues for females—markets, health clinics, and so forth—are those that enable women to fulfill their domestic roles as homemakers and mothers. In contrast, public spaces for males are less narrowly defined and not necessarily linked to their gender roles. … Females have a much more difficult time—and, in some cases, are completely excluded from—visiting spaces such as town halls, parks, and sports stadiums unless they are accompanied by men. (1–2)

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