x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Women's teams playing their part in the peace process

More than 10,000 women flocked from all over the West Bank to watch the Palestinian women's national team take on Jordan in an historic, first-ever home match.

AL RAM, WEST BANK // The small suburb of Al Ram, on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, had never seen anything like it. Just a few hundred metres from the separation barrier that snakes through the West Bank, the Faisal al Husseini stadium was already full two hours before kickoff; the crowd a noisy sea of white hijabs and Palestinian flags. More than 10,000 women had flocked from all over the West Bank, on buses, in taxis, many on foot, to watch the Palestinian women's national team take on Jordan in an historic, first-ever home match.

"We want to prove that we are better than the men at football," said Asala el Wazeer, an 18-year-old student who arrived with a group of school friends just as the Palestinian team embarked on a lap of honour. She was one of the lucky ones: hundreds more were locked outside. "It has taken us years to get to this point and we are very proud of the team." It is rare that you see a lap of honour before a football match, but for the Palestinian women's national team, who have had to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers just for the right to exist, even getting a game is enough cause for celebration.

Football is hugely popular among women in the Middle East, but the development of the game has been held back by a social conservatism that disapproves of women competing in "men's" sport. Famously, Iran has a long-standing ban on women attending football matches, a ban that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to repeal before being slapped down by his clerical allies. In Kuwait, attempts to set up a women's national team were met with outrage in the country's parliament. The move was halted after it was decided that a women's football team was "un-Islamic".

The Palestinian team have had their problems too. Set up in 2003, Israeli movement restrictions meant that the team could not practice on the only serviceable grass pitch in the West Bank, in Jericho. Instead, they had to train on a concrete handball court at Bethlehem University. When the team wanted to play a match, they had to leave to the country to do so. But the hardest part was when families, both Christian and Muslim, in conservative strongholds like Nablus, Jenin and Gaza, refused permission for their daughters to play.

"At first it seemed weird women playing soccer in our society because it has a male mentality," Honey Thaljieh, the team's 25-year-old captain, had said in 2007. "Some families had problems sending their daughters to play football, some still face problems." But as the team has grown in popularity, and has become a symbol not just of Palestinian nationalism but also for women's rights, more families have allowed their daughters to play. Even the previously reticent Palestinian Football Association has begun to take the women's game seriously.

Now they have a Futsal league with teams from across the West Bank, a national stadium to play in, and regular participation in international tournaments. Even the great and good of Palestinian political life deigned to attend the match, including Dr Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and Jibril Rajoub, the former security adviser to Yasser Arafat and president of the Palestinian FA who has transformed football in the West Bank since taking over last year.

"We go to the villages now and tell them [the parents] that it is not forbidden to play. Most of the team is now Muslim," explained Rouqaya Takrouri, the 45-year-old national team manager, who hoped that the match would spur a new recruitment drive. "We are talking to every woman now. We send out letters that say: 'Now is your time.' Last year we had six clubs, now we have 14." Standing pitchside, Ms Thaljieh could barely hide her smile when asked just how far the game had come in two years. "It is still difficult sometimes," she said, referring to the fact that the team's players from Gaza could not attend because of an Israeli travel ban. "But this has broken all the rules for women here. This was a big event to get both women and men together in Palestinian society. In a way, today was like a marriage between the Palestinians."

But not everyone had such noble ideas. Outside, several thousand men who could not get in thronged on every available elevated surface - to catch a glimpse of the women. But for the vast majority, however, it was the game that was king. Two disputed Palestinian penalties had put the team on course for a historic victory before a late equaliser secured the draw that Jordan probably deserved. But for the women playing, and watching, the result was less important. After the final whistle both sets of players hugged and embarked on another lap of honour in front of an ecstatic crowd.

"This is important and shows the world that we don't care about the barriers and the checkpoints," Ms Thaljieh shouted over the noise. "We have shown the world that we can fight, but that when we fight, we fight through peaceful play." * The National