By Ann Killion
Women and girls are at ground zero in the battle for their right to play sports. But it’s a fight that can lead to immense gains for women and their communities.
There it is, the brightly colored photographic evidence of radical change. Girls in cleats and shin guards. Wearing the red and green uniform of Iraq. Playing soccer in Europe. “Most of the Iraqi people don’t believe girls are playing soccer,” Jamil Zina-Zizo says with a small smile. “They see the photos and they still don’t believe it.”
But this is not a photoshopped fabrication. A team of 17-year-old girls from Duhok in the Kurdish northern territory of Iraq traveled last summer to Gothenburg, Sweden, to play in the Gothia Cup, the largest youth tournament in the world.
They marched in the opening ceremony. They danced in the stadium. They played soccer. And—perhaps—their lives were indelibly changed.
Zina-Zizo, a thin, serious girl who served as the captain of her team, describes herself as astonished to be playing sports in Sweden. She thinks she will be changed from the experience. And possibly a part of her culture will be, too.
“We could break the wall between girls’ football and what society thinks about it,” she says, through two translations—from Kurdish to Arabic to English. “We could influence social life, possibly.”
“I feel for the first time that I am a woman, a girl, a team captain, representing my country,” she says. “I can’t put my feelings into words. It is unbelievable.”
From Iraq to Nicaragua, from Papua New Guinea to Nigeria, girls with balls and bats, on tracks and playing fields, are creating a sweaty revolution. They are challenging gender stereotypes, pushing boundaries, and taking on tradition. Increasingly, sport has become a tool for female empowerment around the globe.
In Afghanistan, girls attend a skateboarding school. In Syria, young women play softball. In the slums of Nairobi, adolescent girls learn boxing and other self-defense skills. In Nicaragua, hundreds of girls gather nightly for soccer practice or educational events at a soccer facility called T.E.A.M. Granada. In Pakistan, Right to Play leaders organized a first-ever girls’ volleyball tournament.
The hope is that by giving a girl athletic opportunities, in a safe and supportive environment, change will follow. The lessons that have held true for so many middle-class American girls over the past four decades could become the reality of girls anywhere.
But these athletic revolutionaries must overcome tremendous cultural and traditional barriers before the playing field is even close to being level. “You can’t just give a girl a ball and lives change,” says Awista Ayub, an Afghani-born American who brought a group of girls from Afghanistan to the US to play soccer in 2004. “It’s not that simple.”
Turning sports into a lasting tool of change requires community support, infrastructure, and commitment.
“You can’t talk about this sports experience without talking about the Iraqi situation,” says Ali Alhasnawy, who helped facilitate the Iraqi girls’ trip to Gothenburg. A coach who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime, he now lives in Sweden. “People will say, now something will happen. But it depends on the leaders of the country. Do they want to educate girls to be good leaders? Do they accept this? I don’t think so."
Around the world, there are pockets of outreach where girls are being introduced to sports and physical activity. Balls are being rolled out on dirt fields. Basketballs are being dribbled. Races are being run. Girls are moving, learning, laughing, sweating, and working together.
The benefits are obvious to those working in the field.
“Think of all the benefits young men derive from sports—young women get the same effect,” says Olympian basketball gold medalist Jennifer Azzi, who—through her connection to the NBA and WNBA—has run basketball clinics in South Africa, Tanzania, and Abu Dhabi. “The girls feel validated that they can play sports. They are so excited.”
“You can see a personality shift,” says Ayub, who wrote a book about her experience with girls from Afghanistan called The Kabul Girls Soccer Club. “They became so much more outgoing. They really found their voice.”
The organizers and volunteers who help run clinics, camps, and group activities are convinced of the power of sports to effect change. That belief stems from the lessons learned in the decades since 1972 when Title IX was adopted by the US federal government: that sport builds healthier, more confident girls. That sport teaches life lessons about cooperation and teamwork. That sport creates leaders.
The Women’s Sports Foundation has a gymnasium full of statistics backing up those assumptions, ones that are now taken for granted in the US and many other developed countries. Studies show that female participation in sports leads to higher graduation rates and test scores; to a wealth of measurements of improved health; to higher self-esteem; to lower drug use; lower pregnancy rates; and fewer eating disorders.
All those Western-molded lessons potentially hold true for girls and women anywhere. And all those newfound benefits can create strong women who will become involved leaders.
“Sports gives women the confidence to use their power, to be in leadership positions,” says Tuti Scott, a former executive at the Women’s Sports Foundation who now runs Imagine Philanthropy, an international consulting firm that supports philanthropy.
A young woman named Maihan Wali helped form a basketball league in Afghanistan. Despite discouragement and outright threats, she persevered and uses sports as a vehicle to teach other young women about their rights. Now the captain of her national team, Wali’s influence extends beyond sports. She spoke last summer at the Women Deliver conference in Washington DC and has been honored as a global changemaker.
“What sports does—in a safe environment—is give women their voice,” Scott says. “The woman who participates in sports might be more of a risk taker, might run for a council seat, might question how land ownership is decided, might make better decisions about how to tackle economic conditions. It all circles back.”
Scott is on the board of Women Win, an organization founded in 2007 to empower women through sports. Founder Astrid Aafjes started her organization after participating in a women’s race in Casablanca where witnessing 20,000 women racing through the streets of a Muslim country became a powerful, life-changing experience.
“Sports is positive, universal, and cuts across cultural differences,” Aafjes says. “A girl that feels confident about herself and understands her body will be more likely to say no to violence or unsafe sex.”
Despite the known benefits of getting girls involved in sports, numerous hurdles exist—including lack of resources and stubborn cultural codes—that challenge communities’ abilities to create these opportunities. Much of the funding for sports programs is top down, funneled through or influenced by massive entities such as the International Olympic Committee or FIFA, soccer’s international governing body.
“The problem with the Olympics and the World Cup is that those phases come and go,” says Scott. “It’s the sizzle, a moment in time.”
Scott notes that with the recent adoption of rugby as an Olympic sport, some underdeveloped countries are scrambling to use limited resources to create women’s rugby teams, which may or may not have lasting impact. Even successful programs, such as the Brazilian women’s national soccer team that finished second in both the last Women’s World Cup and the 2008 Olympics, struggles to maintain funding and relevance outside of the quadrennial cycles.
“To shift the culture in a positive way, you want sustainability,” Scott says. “That’s why the Olympic movement should put their money into schools and clubs.”
The top-down approach to funding and program development can be challenging.
“It can be philosophically problematic,” says Sarah Murray, communications director for Women Win. “Those in charge can be farthest removed from girls on the ground. Culturally, they’re out of sync.”
A general consensus is that grassroots efforts that produce a groundswell of results and community awareness—a model more emblematic in developing nations—are the most effective path to long-term change. Such programs usually don’t exclusively focus on teaching sports-specific skills, but use sports as a catalyst for activity, health, and community building.
Deport-es Para Compartir introduces elementary school children in Mexico to games and sports through mixed gender teams. Right to Play supports girls programs in 20 countries, including basketball in Mali, soccer in Liberia, and volleyball in Pakistan. Soccer Without Borders has created an institute in Granada, Nicaragua, to use soccer as a tool for positive influence.
“As we develop our goals, we want to be culturally appropriate,” says Mary McVeigh, the executive director of Soccer Without Borders. “We don’t want to implant American values.”
Like Women Win and other organizations Soccer Without Borders tries to influence both ends of the spectrum. “We want to be bottom-up, top-down, and outside-in,” McVeigh says. “Local grassroots programs show the most efficiency. But once the bottom-up approach is shown to work, it’s important to get those at the top involved.”
The challenge lies in sustaining these embers of change. Barriers must be broken. The first step is navigating a path where sports can be recognized as more than just a privilege, but part of the basic necessities of life. That recognition already exists for many girls in developed nations, where parents are more likely to not only support but encourage girls to participate in sports. But in developing nations, oftentimes girls must fight for their right to play. Sports are viewed as a luxury, particularly for females. They are shut out of the field by lack of resources, and are forced to defy social and cultural rules that tell them “No.”
“I was a bit naïve,” says Ayub, who has—since her initial foray into the soccer world— seen women’s soccer in Afghanistan grow substantially. “I grew up in the US watching women’s soccer and I saw it as a gender-neutral sport. But it turned out to be the most male-dominated sport. The girls were challenging barriers on and off the field. Certainly it took an emotional toll.”
Girls in Muslim countries often can’t participate in sports in open areas, where men might see them. They are constricted by what they must wear. In many areas, finding a safe environment for play is a challenge. Around the world, families may feel threatened by seeing their daughters step out of traditional women’s roles.
“They have duties in their households, or are working outside the household,” McVeigh says. “You can’t tell the parents that sports are more valuable than bringing home money. That’s why you have to involve local community members.”
The barriers exist everywhere, including the US. Despite the great strides made in the world of women’s sports, the benefits are still often reserved for the children of privilege.
Marlene Bjornsrud has spent her life in sports, as a collegiate athletic director and as a general manager in the former WUSA, the women’s professional soccer league that disbanded in 2003. She, along with soccer stars Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, founded BAWSI (the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative), which brings collegiate athletes into underprivileged schools to run afterschool programs focusing on health and fitness.
Just a stone’s throw from elite Bay Area college campuses where women athletes are afforded the same opportunity as men, Bjornsrud faces enormous cultural barriers—poverty, gang families, domestic violence—to involving young girls in her programs.
“I’m increasingly concerned about the huge number of girls who will never have the opportunity to play sports,” she says. “Some of it is pure economics. There’s a high price tag to playing sports even at an entry level. And the other piece is cultural. Some families don’t see the value of girls playing sports, or see it as a negative, a distraction that takes them away from helping with the children or the meals.”
But six years into her program, she is gratified to see girls owning a piece of the playground, becoming more physically active, and being regularly exposed to strong, educated role models. BAWSI has a mothers program to encourage further family support. Bjornsrud has schools lining up to bring BAWSI to their campuses.
“Our BAWSI girls feel connected, they feel special,” says Norma Rodriguez, the principal at Dorsa Elementary School in San Jose, California, which has had a BAWSI program since 2005. “We have fifth graders applying to be junior coaches for the younger girls because they want to be like their team leaders. They want to be role models.”
There are pockets of change around the globe. But quantifying the success of programs is difficult. The tangible benefits—reduced domestic violence and early pregnancy rates, the development of young girls into community leaders—may be impossible to tabulate for years, if ever.
But every organization is fueled by its own success stories.
Women Win supports Boxgirls, which organizes boxing and self-defense classes for girls in Kenya’s Nairobi slums. Vinter, a 12-year-old captain, says:
“I am small, but I am a leader. I train young girls to be strong and confident…and also how to respect others in society.”
Dina Buchbinder Auron, the director of Deport-es Para Compatir, is fueled by the sight of working women in Mexico City, who—after raising their children—began playing volleyball and found new meaning in life. And by an indigenous 10-year-old boy telling her, “I did not know women could play and even do it better than us.”
In Nicaragua, 17-year-old Yelba Sirias has moved from T.E.A.M. Granada to the Nicaraguan under-20 national soccer team. She has traveled with her team to El Salvador and is now working as a coach with Soccer Without Borders.
And in Sweden, serious young Jamil Zina-Zizo notes that when she left Iraq, “You cannot talk about girls’ football. It does not exist.” But when she returned home, she had started the conversation.