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Published On:11 July 2011
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

SPORTS: From slum to stadium

By Anjali Nayar

I met Shahenaz Kureshi as she was limping away from the field at the Willy-Kressmann stadium in Berlin. In one hand, she had an ice pack for her injuries, and in the other a ladoo (an Indian sweet) for sustenance.

It had been a tough game. Kureshi and her teammates from the slums of Nagpur, central India, lost badly to a squad of Togolese human rights advocates. Everyone was slightly battered and bruised.

But these weren't the first scars Kureshi had earned in the name of soccer. Although the game has always been a bit of an escape for her, it has never been easy.

Kureshi's father abused her mother after she was born - he had wanted a boy child. Then one day he left for good. Kureshi and her mother struggled to get by on the meagre sum her mother made as a labourer. There was no money for organized activities.

So for Kureshi, street soccer became an outlet. Few girls would play with her, so she played with the neighbourhood boys, with the kids in the street - anyone - to get into the game. But when her mother found out, she was forbidden. Coming from a Muslim family, there were stigmas associated with women playing sports.

"When girls in my community start playing soccer, it's like they've lost their reputation and will never be able to get married," Kureshi told me.

Obstacles big and small

In my past few articles, I've touched on some of the obstacles facing women's soccer: a lack of professional leagues, poor salaries, a lack of fans, and a lack of marketing power.

But I'd like to step back now and use soccer to highlight some of the fundamental issues facing women around the world.

I met Kureshi and several other women (from different cultural and social backgrounds) taking part in Berlin's Discover Football tournament, which has been running alongside the World Cup. And although their stories are all interesting, I'd like to focus on Kureshi and the intersection of soccer and Islam.

Although militants in Somalia made headlines around the world last year after executing World Cup fans at home and abroad, most of the Muslim world is fairly lenient to the sport.

There have been several well-known Muslim men in European leagues - from Zinedine Zidane (a non-practising Muslim) to Sevilla FC player Frederic Kanoute, who rarely breaks fast during Ramadan, despite the physical drain of soccer on his body.

That being said, it has definitely been harder for Muslim women to get into the game. Fatmire Bajramaj, a refugee from Kosovo and one of Germany's star midfielders, told the New York Times her father wanted her to be a singer or an actress.

"He told me that football was for men, not for women," she said.

Bajramaj snuck around to play soccer at first, using equipment lent to her by her brother and teammate. Finally, when her father found out, he was supportive, but Bajramaj has still been criticized for the amount of skin she shows, especially in marketing campaigns.

In Afghanistan, the situation is more challenging: women are banned from publicly playing soccer, and many of the country's roughly 600 players face death threats on a daily basis.

But in the last decade, much of the Muslim world has opened up to women's soccer. Turkey and Egypt have growing leagues, and in Egypt, female referees have started officiating men's games. Leading up to the 2011 World Cup, the Kingdom of Bahrain hosted seven other Middle Eastern nations (Syria, Palestine, Qatar, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan) for a women's soccer tournament.

This year the Women's World Cup is being broadcast in more than 200 countries worldwide, more than ever before. And as women's soccer becomes more visible on the international stage, countries are becoming more accepting and supportive of the game.

"When a girl plays football, it's better than her doing something that is bad," an Egyptian man told Al Jazeera English in a documentary on the subject. "It's better than staying out all night or going to disreputable places."

"When she plays sports, it's in a public place, right?" another man told Al Jazeera. "As long as she's wearing decent shorts that's fine."

With soccer helping to change perceptions of women around the world, it's unsettling that in May FIFA decided to disqualify the Iranian national team from an Olympic qualifier because the team's modest uniforms didn't conform to FIFA "standards".

According to journalists following the matter, Iran had a similar uniform kafuffle with FIFA in 2010, because it felt that the team's headscarves were a religious statement and/or could impair the players' safety.

At the time, FIFA recommended the Iranian team play in caps, which don't cover the neck, and so don't conform to Iran's Islamic dress code. The Iranian uniform was redesigned (using the cap) but with a jersey having a slightly higher collar, covering the neck region. FIFA stepped in again.

According to FIFA, "players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits."

Rules are important, and I know many players who have been sent off the field for wearing jewellery, for safety reasons. Equally, political and religious statements - like when Frederic Kanoute took off his jersey revealing a T-shirt in support of Palestine - is pushing the limits.

But I don't believe the small uniform infraction of the Iranian team justified a disqualification. The rule sends out the wrong message, to a region that is becoming more open to women's sport, and to women's issues. By pitting women's sport against religion, neither the Iranian officials nor FIFA are suffering. Ultimately, it is the roughly 20 women, who have gone against all odds to play the sport, who have been affected.

The issue isn't that far away from home. Last month a referee in Quebec was fired because she wears a headscarf. And in 2007, five teams from across Canada walked out of a Quebec tournament after a player from a Nepean selects team was thrown out of a game for a headscarf.

The Quebec Soccer Federation has maintained that it's just upholding FIFA rules.

"The situation is clear," a statement from the Quebec Soccer Federation read in 2011. "Wearing a hijab is not allowed on Quebec's soccer fields."

But other countries have amended their rules. The German soccer federation was petitioned three years ago after a young girl was thrown out of a youth match, and has since allowed head coverings for lower-level leagues.

Heike Ullrich, the head of women's soccer at the federation, told the New York Times: "When we get this question, I say to people, 'Just let them play.' If it's not the highest league, it's not a problem."

Back to Berlin

For Kureshi, the problem isn't the uniform (she doesn't even wear a headscarf). Kureshi's mother worries about how she will be perceived by society.
"They would rather have the girl stay in the house working," she explains. "If I go out to explore, to discover, they think I could get 'polluted' and do things that a good Muslim girl is not supposed to do, that is the problem."

But through soccer, even that is changing. Since Kureshi, 19, joined the Indian slum soccer team, she has played in Brazil during the Homeless World Cup in 2010, and this year she was in Germany for the Discover Football tournament.

"These were things that I never even dreamed of - travel, sitting on a plane -- and they were realized before I even dreamt of it, because of slum soccer," she said.

With that travel, comes a new sense of confidence. "I was very introverted before, but because of meeting people from around the world, that's all changed," she told me.

It's hard to imagine that a simple trip abroad could have a lasting impact. But it does in small-town Nagpur, where Kureshi lives. Most people there have never left the city, let alone travelled to another country. So despite worries that the slum soccer girls' minds have been tainted, the players command a new level of respect.

"It's changed our lives but it also has changed our village - the community knows that we are international players, that we've gone to Brazil and Germany - they know," says Rubina Sheikh, Kureshi's teammate.

Kureshi and her peers have since returned back to India, where they will be coaching other young girls in the slums. For some players, though, the experience in Germany might have been a little too liberating. The entire Cameroonian team (as well as two players from Togo) has gone missing.

(Courtesy: CBC.ca)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on July 11, 2011. Filed under , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on July 11, 2011. Filed under , , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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