x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

UAE's female fans get onside for following football

The recent Gulf Cup success has highlighted a new, fast-growing and passionate group of supporters in the Emirates, writes Mahra Al Amri.

Women from the UAE travelled to Bahrain to support the national team in the Gulf Cup final against Iraq earlier this month. Marwan Naamani / AFP
Women from the UAE travelled to Bahrain to support the national team in the Gulf Cup final against Iraq earlier this month. Marwan Naamani / AFP

Football is no longer a male preserve among Emiratis. Wives and daughters in the UAE are showing that they understand and appreciate the nuances of the game as well as their fathers and brothers.

It became particularly apparent this month during the Gulf Cup of Nations, in Bahrain, when women travelled to Manama to watch the UAE senior team play and many others watched on television with no small understanding of what was happening on the pitch, and why.

"Do I understand football? More than the referees themselves," said Aysha Al Kaabi, 21, a student at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. "I watch football literally all the time. Even if it was not my favourite teams playing.

"Not to brag, but If there was a class for that kind of stuff I will find myself most suitable for the job - teaching that class."

Al Kaabi said she enjoys watching the foreign leagues in addition to the UAE's Pro League because they play "spectacularly, unbelievably awesome with all their magical moves".

She concedes her zeal for football matches is not always fully appreciated in her home.

"My family are also big football fans but sometimes they mind my overly enthusiastic attitude when watching football games," she said.

People sometimes take advantage of her football knowledge.

"Whenever they feel like annoying me they start talking about how the teams I'm into don't play well and how bad they are," she said.

But she also receives queries about whether her affinity for the game is somehow unnatural.

"I am sometimes questioned whether I think it's normal for a girl to watch football," she said. Her response? "It was not invented just for men to watch."

As for "normal" she said: "What is really normal? Everyone has their own definition for that."

So far, she draws a line at attending matches. "I get excited watching the match on TV, so I wonder how excited I would get if I saw it live in the stadium. Of course, it's not acceptable here in our society to do so, so I watch it on TV when that's the only option available."

One Emirati student described a scene in her home in which she and her mother were so involved, while watching a Gulf Cup match, and so vocal about it, that her young brother began to cry because the passion unnerved him.

Aisha Ahmed, 22, also a student at Zayed University, said she watches football and often finds herself drawn into the match.

"I do understand most of the football-related terms and ask about terms I don't know," she said. She said she watches only Pro League matches "because I don't want to waste my time watching a game that's not related to me or my country, and I'm not interested in.

"My family doesn't mind me watching football; sometimes we watch together. But sometimes girls tease me and tell me that, as I'm a girl, I'm not supposed to like football."

She also feels that the stadium is not the right place for a woman. "It doesn't feel right, although it would be fun and exciting," she said.

Shaikha Saif, 17 and a high school student, is a football fan, but specifically an Al Ain fan, and her family accepts her interest in football.

"My family doesn't mind me watching as long as I don't neglect other more important duties such as studies, prayers, et cetera," she said. "People don't bother me about my football love; they just wonder why."

She is eager to attend a match, but has not, and cites cultural norms. "I would love and wish to attend a match myself, but it's not my family that would mind, it's more the society. Society will be critical of a woman attending a stadium full of men. They will talk about me in a negative way."

Many women who are fans and stay-at-home analysts have pondered the ramifications of following the game after they marry.

Saif said: "After marriage, I will explain to my husband that this is something I love and enjoy and I don't think he would mind that as long as I'm doing what's excepted of me as a wife."

Ahmed said: "After marriage I don't think my husband will mind me watching football because we will watch it together."

Al Kaabi suggested watching football will not be a topic open to discussion. "For his own good, he better be a football maniac just like his future wife."

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