x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Making a pitch for sport equality

National women's football team programme trying to not just field a competitive squad, but stir interest among females in the UAE.

ABU DHABI // Football conjures up images of muscular male figures on the pitch, fighting for their national pride as frantic fans cheer from the stands. But one team in Abu Dhabi is trying to turn that stereotype on its head. The UAE women's national team wants to make the sport a viable pastime for young women.

"The girls are ambitious, and most of them just want to represent their country as a team," said Talal al Hashemi, the head of football technical support at Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC). "I think that's an important trait, having national pride in what you're doing." The council is setting up a committee to develop women's sport with a special focus on football, he said. Programmes, including football tournaments, are in the works.

Hafsa al Ulama, the managing director of the team, said the programme would benefit not just footballers, but all Emirati women. "We aim to create a whole generation in the future who is fit and can play any type of sport," she said. It is welcome news for the team, which the council established in 2004. Its 22 members are between 15 and 26 years old, and include Emiratis, Lebanese, Americans, Algerians and New Zealanders.

The team has played against teams from the region and Europe. "We want more Emirati girls to join," said Miss al Ulama. "We want to make a national team." But the team has faced friction from parents and others in the community who are reluctant to let Emirati women play, said Mariam Ibrahim, 24, one of the team's goalkeepers. "Parents weren't comfortable with their daughters travelling and their exposure in the media," she said.

Some families even say how "shameful" it is for women to play, or that football is a "men's sport". But Miss Ibrahim played basketball and volleyball and, according to her, no one complained. "When it comes to football, people here think it's a sport exclusive to men, when it's really not," she said. "They say it's a rough sport, but that's not true. I played basketball and that's really rough." However, attitudes are changing, Miss Ibrahim said.

"Five years ago, the idea of girls playing football wasn't as acceptable as it is now." Noora Al Mazruei, 24, a goalkeeper, said some fears she has heard voiced - such as the girls being forced to wear shorts and take off their headscarves - are unfounded. "Girls are allowed to wear long pants and play with their headscarves on the field," she said. "The management looks out to what's comfortable to the girls and their families."

The team recently returned from a European competition in which they played seven matches, winning three, drawing two and losing two. Their opponents were women's teams from the German and Swiss first divisions. Team members said they would like to see football become a proper occupation for women. "In other countries a football player is listed down as a job and it's acceptable," said Miss al Mazruei, who is studying public relations at Abu Dhabi University.

"Women here have made it into the workforce, into high positions, and any jobs they want. Why not go into sport?" newsdesk@thenational.ae