Women’s football | The hard playing surface of Palestine (w/ video)

… I am going
to the fields, so I may glean
the free grain that falls
behind, if one may
look on me kindly— …
There, in the fields, gleaning
behind the harvesters, she found herself
by accident …
—Ruth 2:2–3, trans. David Rosenberg

Bethlehem, West Bank | This picture of the biblical Ruth, the Moabite, a poor woman gleaning in Bethlehem (“house of bread”) behind reapers of barley strikes a parallel with the women’s football team from Palestine, taking its passion and pleasure from scraps left by a patriarchal culture and occupying authorities.

Thaljieh, Jackline Jazrawi, Mshasha and Mousa feature in Italian journalist Conti’s video. “Through football we can make our minds more open,” says Jazrawi, “and our society too.”

Even the language of the team’s organizers, quoted in the recent Guardian Unlimited report by James Montague (“The Slow March to Equality,” Jan 9), evokes Judeo-Christian scripture, if for no other reason than the national team’s backbone trains in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. The side also has outposts in Ramallah, Jericho and Gaza, although, as with the men’s team from Palestine, team members are prevented from training together due to a network of security checkpoints controlling access to patchwork Palestinian land holdings.


“We started with Honey,” says Samar Araj Mousa, who as athletics director at Bethlehem University initiated the women’s program in 2003. Mousa refers to Honey Thaljieh, 23, striker and captain. A 2006 Bethlehem University graduate in business administration, Thaljieh in interviews over the past few years emphasizes that tight controls on space and travel paradoxically have contributed to cohesion. “We have nowhere else to go and nowhere to put our energies,” she tells Al-Jazeera. “In Bethlehem we are in a prison that is only open from above.”

She expands on the idea in the video (see above) produced by Bethlehem-based Alternative Information Center editor Laura Conti:

We are just playing with our souls and spiritual abilities. It’s because we are strong, we are Palestinian, we face a lot of difficulties. We want to be something.

Like most of the Bethlehem-based players, Thaljieh is Christian and faces less cultural and family stress than players who are Muslim. Islamic authorities within the Palestinian territories appear to agree that football for women is not haram, or forbidden, but stricter norms govern a woman’s clothing and the expectations related to marriage and family. (See 11 Mar 07 and 28 Feb 07 for more on FIFA’s policy regarding religious head coverings.)

Palestine has lost two first-team players to marriage. “From a religious point of view, Muslim or Christian,” coach Raed Ayyad tells Montague, “no one has said that it’s forbidden for women to play soccer. Islam says that sport is good for the body and if [the players] wear long clothes then it’s not forbidden.” Goalkeeper Nadine Klaib, 14, says that “wearing the veil gives me power.”

Since forming, the Palestinians have played a series of international competitions, including the inaugural Arab Women’s Football Championship and West Asian Women’s Football Championship. (The Palestinian women’s team is not ranked by FIFA.) On these occasions, they finally are able to unite as a team, to learn each other’s names and to play on a full-sized pitch. Since their inception, the Bethlehem contingent has practiced on a concrete handball court at the university, which perhaps has facilitated close ball control but also a rash of knee injuries.

Travel to events abroad brings its own rigors. The previous coach, Emil Hilal, left the post after Israelis detained him before an overseas trip. Mousa, the athletics director, says that such is the routine that must be accommodated within itineraries.

When we go to Jordan for tournaments, we need all the day. First we pass through Wadi Nar, from the Palestine frontier, then from the Israeli controls, where they stop us for hours, questioning the girls and the coach, and checking if anybody is involved in politics. After that we pass to the Jordan side where they question us again. This is our problem.

No one fully escapes political involvement in this context. “She has to be smart and know the politics,” says Sami Mshasha, with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Jerusalem, of Thaljieh’s unwritten duties as team captain. His daughter, Sarouna, at 12 is the side’s youngest player. Implicit within the participation of these girls and women, Mshasha implies, is acting as a brake on the conservative backlash that forms a natural response to occupation. The conservative impulse took concrete form when Hamas took control of the Palestinian parliament in Jan 06 elections.

Mshasha drives through the checkpoints in a white, UN-marked car and comments on the low priority with which the Palestinian FA treats the women’s game. “You can almost hear them snickering,” he says.

Note: For additional background and links, see 3 Dec 06.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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