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Iraqi women risk wrath for interest in football

Iraq is a nation of football fans, but many women risk the wrath of conservative male members of the family if they show an interest in events on the pitch.

Iraq is a nation of football fans, and love for the sport is perhaps the single thing that has united the country throughout decades of war and sanctions. Above, men watch a World Cup match in a cafe in Sadr City.
Iraq is a nation of football fans, and love for the sport is perhaps the single thing that has united the country throughout decades of war and sanctions. Above, men watch a World Cup match in a cafe in Sadr City.

Iraq is a nation of football fans, but many women risk the wrath of conservative male members of the family if they show an interest in events on the pitch - and domestic disputes have escalated into violence and divorce. BAGHDAD // If Rana Dhafer is to see tonight's crucial World Cup tie between Germany and England, she will have to evade her father and brothers, sneak out of the house and try to join her friends watching television in a neighbour's home.

Like scores of other Iraqi women, the 23-year-old university student has been banned from following the World Cup by relatives, who say her interest in foreign male footballers is un-Islamic, un-Iraqi and brings shame on their household. "I've always been interested in football, and have supported Germany since I was 10 years old," said Ms Dhafer. "It was never a problem when I was young and I would watch matches with my father and brothers. But when I was 18, they stopped me.

"There came a day when I talked about football, and a particular German player I like, and my father said, 'shut up, you can't like him, he's a man and it's against our traditions. We don't want our daughters like that'." Determined to still support the German team in its European campaign of 2008, Ms Dhafer, then aged 21, decided to secretly watch a match at home when her family went out for the day. But they came back before expected and found her in front of the television.

"I was beaten for that," she recalled. "My father hit me in the face, my eyes were swollen for two weeks, I had trouble seeing out of one eye." In her university accommodation in Baghdad, shared with other young Iraqi women, Ms Dhafer has posters of the German striker Miroslav Klose, her favourite player, pinned to the wall. When she is back at home with her parents however, in a conservative Shiite area south of the capital, she is forbidden from so much as mentioning the team.

"I joked once that I wished I were married to Klose and got into a lot of trouble for that," she said. "It was just a joke, but they think that I'm serious, they told me 'that's not our way'. I explained to my father that my friends' families allow them to watch football, but he didn't care, he doesn't understand." Iraq is a nation of football fans, and love for the sport is perhaps the single thing that has united the country throughout decades of war and sanctions. Iraq's talented if erratic national team is followed with a profound dedication, and it can be hard to find a house that is not glued to a game if one is being played somewhere in the world and televised - European matches, international tournaments, the Arab leagues, even repeats of old ties with well known score lines.

The World Cup, the world's largest, most prestigious football tournament has been no different. While many families - men and women - come together to enjoy games, there are a significant number of conservative households that prohibit female members, especially young adults, from viewing. Mrs Dhafer is far from an isolated case. "I have real problem with my four brothers and my father," said Sousan Abdul Razaq, 19, a history student and a keen supporter of Spain. "They don't let me watch football, talk about football or support Spain. If I mention it, they tell me it's shameful. They say it's not acceptable in our tradition for me to like a man from another culture, from another religion."

The prohibition is such, she said, that if a report comes on the news mentioning the Spanish team's World Cup fortunes, her father orders her to leave the room. To watch matches, Ms Razaq pretends to visit a friend, a ruse employed sparingly so her family does not become too suspicious. Like Ms Dhafer, she is helped in the subterfuge by sympathetic, liberal-minded neighbours who allow their teenage daughters to watch football.

"I did try to explain to my family that this is not against our religion or traditions, and that I'm not going to run off and marry a foreign footballer but they don't listen," Ms Razaq said. The edict against watching matches is not one she takes lightly, saying that a university colleague was beaten by her family for professing admiration of Argentina's Lionel Messi. "She had black eyes, she had to go to hospital because she was beaten badly," Ms Razaq said.

In Baghdad, the women's rights lawyer Inas Karim said dozens of domestic violence and divorce cases revolved around husbands who were jealous of their wives' admiration of football stars or actors. Calling it a "mentality" that was deeply rooted in Iraq, she said it had to be forced to change. "I've dealt with almost 50 situations of divorce where men are leaving their wives because of this," she said in an interview. "I've visited seven women in hospital with serious injuries after their husband beat them for liking footballers or actors."

According to Mrs Karim, who works with the Baghdad Women's Association, a non-governmental organisation helping abuse victims, the judiciary was usually sympathetic to the men's complaints. "I've heard judges say it's shameful for a women to look at a man who isn't her husband," Mrs Karim said. "I stand there and tell them this is not against any law, it's not against any religion, it's not a smear on anyone's honour and that it is most certainly not adultery but they don't listen. They need to be educated, this is not acceptable."

She called the situation "absurd" and said that films and football were one of the few escapes from the hard lives endured by most Iraqi women. "Women here are raising children, stuck in poverty, there is violence everywhere," she said. "If they want to daydream a little and watch a film or some football, let them, let them take a second or too away from their lives, what harm can that do?" One Iraqi woman who suffered from such a football divorce is Umm Kowther. After Spain's victory in Euro 2008 she held a celebration party for her female friends, complete with a huge poster of Spanish striker Fernando Torres, her favourite player.

"My husband saw it and was furious, he told me, 'if you love Torres so much, marry him'," she recalled. "I didn't think he was serious but then he started the divorce proceedings. "This is totally insane but what can I do, it's a complete overreaction, it's stupid jealousy, it's one of the problems with Iraqi men; they don't understand the world and our feelings." South of the capital, Ms Dhafer, the Germany fan, said she was planning to watch today's match against England, risking once again her father's wrath.

"It's difficult to be at home," she said. "When I'm at university I feel free to be my own person. I'm not saying that I disrespect myself or behave badly there, but I have room to breathe and to dream and to watch football if I want to. "At home I can't do those things. My family doesn't understand that I'm just a girl like all other girls in the world. I'm not doing anything wrong." nlatif@thenational.ae