ACDA players, in red, at a match on Apr 8. Matuska has posted other photographs from her documentary research project in Rabat. (Copyright © 2007 Nicole Matuska)
Juggling identities, Moroccan women look for a game
Rabat, Morocco | The fifth Women’s World Cup began Sept 10, and hundreds of thousands of viewers tuned in across the globe to watch defending champion Germany obliterate Argentina 11-0.
Raja Ghazali, a 19-year-old female footballer in Salé, was sitting in her living room that Monday, flipping though the channels on satellite television, trying to decide between a Saudi-league football match or reruns of Star Academy, the Arab world’s answer to American Idol. Many of Raja’s teammates were doing much the same, that is, not watching the Women’s World Cup. In fact, none of them knew the games had begun.
I came to Morocco a year ago to study women’s football as a Fulbright scholar [see Mar 11]. For a year now, I have been playing football as well as observing, interviewing and living with a women’s football team named ACDA (l’Association Cité des Arts) in Rabat, the capital. This is how I met Raja and about 25 other girls who have been playing football since they were young. They scream during Real Madrid–Barcelona games as loudly as the men next to them, they wear Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o jerseys with pride, but when asked if they were going to watch this Women’s World Cup, they looked at me as if I had just asked about a curling tournament.
This year, the tournament is being broadcast to more than 200 countries, a 25 percent increase over the previous tournament in 2003. According to FIFA’s website, viewing audiences worldwide will exceed previous standards for a women’s sporting event (“ ‘Women’s Football More Popular Than Ever,’ ” Sept 7). But that Raja, a promising footballer who lives and breathes the sport, could sit in her living room unaware that, at that moment, women like her were competing for the world championship made me start to reexamine the impact the women’s football movement is having in Morocco.
Before seeing ACDA play in a Ramadan tournament in 2004, when I was in Morocco on a study-abroad program, I did not know that women’s football existed here. The women’s game is easy to overlook. Football in Morocco is much like football all over the world, in that it is predominantly male. It is played everywhere and anywhere, from the posh neighborhoods of the country’s capital to the dusty, bare-earth terrains on the edge of the Sahara. Men fill up the cafés watching games, and boys kick around pieces of rubber and leather in the streets.
The football field in Morocco is a male space. Yet young women are entering this space and, in the process, challenging the male culture of football as well as expanding the definition of what it means to be a Muslim woman in Morocco.
As Morocco begins to see women play, the story of women’s football slowly creeps into public consciousness. In 1998, Morocco created its first national women’s football team. Four years later, the Moroccan Football Federation (Fédération Royale Marocaine de Football) created a loosely structured women’s league. More Moroccan girls play each year, but what is happening now is more than an increase in numbers. Morocco is now seeing what might be the first generation of young women growing up with the opportunity and infrastructure to play. The game is being transformed from street ball to organized ball. There are many reasons for the transformation: the increase of satellite television in homes; the strengthening of education for women; pressure by FIFA to create more women’s programs, especially in Africa; and the emerging popularity of the Women’s World Cup. Moroccan families are seeing more women playing football in open spaces and on their television screens.
Some say changes are occurring because of a large and growing generation gap, as part of which youth are identifying less with the traditions and cultural norms of their parents and grandparents and looking more toward France and the Western world. Others say that recent crackdowns on terrorism in Morocco as well as society’s backlash against Islamic groups have led to greater rights for women. Moroccan society’s response to the Casablanca bombings in 2003—to radical Islam and terrorism—has helped lead to seats for women in the parliament, a voice in civil society and a space on the football field.
Now, more families are letting their daughters play. Women’s teams, often two to three, exist in most major cities. The women’s league stages its competition alongside regional championship tournaments. Men’s professional clubs are starting to talk about creating their own women’s teams, and they have the money to do so.
But a paradox still exists. In spite of these achievements, the football field remains a masculine stage. Social pressure pushes young girls into more “feminine” sports, the formal infrastructure suffers from a lack of will and financial support, and there is still no national championship. In this way, football reflects the push and pull of a society and its contradictions, which exist in all cultures when new ideas confront old ones.
One can see this push and pull in the experiences of the young women on ACDA. The players range from 14 to 31 years old. Most come from modest working-class homes around Rabat and neighboring Salé. Although none of these girls has to sneak out of the house to play, they are often met with subtle and not-so-subtle skepticism and resistance from various sources.
Amina Ogdom, a 24-year-old midfielder, is one of ACDA’s most talented players. She dribbles as if she is floating, her movements are that fluid. The girls on the team call her “Timoumi,” after Mohammed Timoumi, a Moroccan footballer of the 1980s, because of her ability to beat players on the run. Like most girls on the team, she started playing while she was young, in the streets with boys.
“My brother used to hit me if he saw me playing,” said Amina. “I kept playing though because I liked it, it felt right. I played every sport, I couldn’t imagine what I would do without sports.” She is always the last one to stop playing at practice. When everyone is ready to quit, she is screaming to play through one more goal. So naturally, I was taken by surprise when I asked her what she wants to do in the future. “If I can, I’ll work. And later if I don’t stay with football? You know, girls want to get married, they want to have kids, catch the earth. If I can’t work, then I will just stay at home.” Her mother smiled when I posed the same question to her. “What I want for my daughter? I want her to veil herself, pray, get married, that’s it.” Then I asked her if Amina playing football was a problem. “What can I do, she has been playing since her childhood.”
Khadija Rafi, one of the older players on the team, has a similar story. She also grew up playing with boys and had brothers who would tease and hit her when they saw her with a ball. She stuck with the game, however, playing on several teams before joining ACDA. Now 27, Khadija has been playing football formally and informally for more than 20 years. She is one of the only players who never misses practice and is at every game, often giving up her cleats so that better-skilled players with no cleats can play. However, Khadija also wants to get married and feels an urgency to do so in a culture in which most women get married in their late teens or early 20s.
“If I were married, if there was a man and if there was an understanding between us, I would play, but if he doesn’t want, I would support my husband first,” Khadija told me one afternoon. “Football will end because of old age. It is necessary to get married, have kids, have a home, do something for the future. When the girl is old, at least her children will care for her … football will not be very useful.”
What it comes down to, subtle cultural resistance or not, is the lack of opportunities for women to advance with the sport. Morocco has a league for women; however, ACDA’s season this year consisted of eight scheduled games, of which only six were actually played. According to many players, coaches and trainers, this was normal. Games are constantly being canceled, and there is hardly any support from the federation for the league’s continuation. After five years of running a league, the federation has yet to organize a national championship, a real one comparable to the men, in which every team has a chance at the title and not only regional champions. Domestic soccer offers nothing but a dead-end.
No one I know here feels this restraint more than Raja. Like the others, Raja grew up playing with the neighborhood boys on the street. She had an uncle who would pull her inside every time he saw her playing. But she said the boys kept calling her back. They liked her because she was like a boy to them. One day, her uncle saw her score a goal, saw the boys clapping and slapping her on the back. She says that is when her uncle realized that what she was doing was good.
Raja is what you would call a tomboy here in Morocco. She likes to keep her hair short and prefers baggy jeans, T-shirts or boys’ board shorts over tight jeans and fitted tops. Sometimes, when people see her playing football or walking outside, they yell zoufri or azri, names that refer to uneducated boys living on the street, homeless and without families.
That doesn’t stop her from playing. Her mother has been supportive as she has moved from team to team, now playing with ACDA. When I asked her why she plays football, Raja looked confused. “I don’t know, that question, why do I play football? It’s like why do you drink water,” she answered. “Football is in my blood. You can’t ask that question. I feel comfortable in it. When I have problems I play. When I feel happy I play.”
But Raja doesn’t see a future for herself in Morocco. She explains that ACDA’s practices are often canceled because not enough girls show up, they do not have a real trainer, and they play the same teams every year because there is no money to travel outside their region. They also have not received their allotted game stipend in a year. She dreams of being able to train on a real field, with a real trainer, three to four days a week—just like the men, she says. One of the only ways she sees this happening is if she were to leave Morocco and play abroad.
In her home, in a closet in the main living room where she sleeps, Raja keeps a suitcase of foreign football jerseys given to her by traveling women’s teams from Belgium, France and Germany. She has track suits and souvenirs, stickers and e-mail addresses. One day, Raja and I were sitting at the family computer going through pictures on a Moroccan website dedicated to the famous men’s footballer Marouane Chamakh. I saw her scanning the comments section under each photo, reading people’s reactions. She added a comment of her own as I read over her shoulder. In broken French, she wrote:
My name is Raja, I am 19 years old and I live in Morocco. Women’s football in Morocco is poor. There is no money or support. I want to play outside of Morocco. If you know of any teams, please write back.
This brings me back to the Women’s World Cup and why Raja and her teammates aren’t watching. The reason might be the lack of effective advertising, that Al Jazeera Sport is not showing games, or that Eurosport opts to delay games or only to show highlights if motor sport happens to be on at the same time. The reason also might be that, although these girls acknowledge the existence of a developed women’s professional game in Europe and elsewhere, it seems far from their own experiences.
For them, it seems far more natural to watch Barcelona play Sevilla, to scream familiar names they grew up with on TV. ACDA’s goalkeeper, Saadia, likes to remind me constantly that she plays because she wants to play, not because she is a girl or in the minority. She does not understand the difference between herself and a boy on the street kicking a ball around.
So maybe the reason comes down to fitting in, in a culture in which football is for boys and is yet to be for girls.
About the author
A 2006 graduate of Northwestern University, Nicole Matuska earned a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07 to study women’s football in Morocco and is producing, with colleague Megan Cramer, a documentary on the experience. Her work has featured previously in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Erin Strout, “The Goal in Morocco: Research on Women via Soccer,” 20 Oct 06) and elsewhere.