Challenging Gender Norms Through Soccer

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending my third Canadian Sport Film Festival here in Toronto. Full disclosure: my wife sits on the advisory board, so my attendance is not optional, however, I have been moved every year by the fabulous films selected by the committee and this year was no exception! My derby team, the GTA RollerGirls, was the sponsor for one of the films about transgendered players in roller derby, so I watched the first film in my smelly gear after skating around the theatre to get viewers excited about In The Turn. Before I go on, trust me, this ties into business…

The night finished with a double feature that sent me on an emotional roller coaster ride. The first of the two was called Fighting For Freedom, and it was the North American premiere screening that followed the Rahimi sisters from Afghanistan who rank as the best female boxers in the country. They are Olympic contenders, yet cannot compete due to the fact that they are women. The family is regularly threatened for having physically active women and ultimately the government fires their coach and bans the girls from training because it is believed that the Rahimi sisters would flee Afghanistan should they be allowed to travel for competitions and training in Europe. It finished and I felt so defeated around women’s rights here in Canada and overseas.

Without a moment of pause after the previous documentary’s closing credits Zanzibar Soccer Dreams starts and already the mood feels more hopeful. A sequel to the Zanzibar Soccer Queens, a 2007 documentary, Zanzibar Soccer Dreams checks in to see where the ladies are now. I did not see the first of the two soccer films but I followed along just fine and I found the story so uplifting and hopeful. Director Florence Ayisi explores the women’s movement through soccer on the beautiful island of Zanzibar, a Tanzanian archipelago off the coast of East Africa. Women started playing soccer there under the coaching of Nassra Mohammed, which was unheard of in the Islamic state when the concept was first introduced in the 1980s.

Women were described as hooligans, it was believed soccer would ruin their chances at marriage, and it was unacceptable to see them with their heads uncovered or skin showing while they played. In 2009, things changed dramatically for the Muslim women of the team, Women Fighters FC, when they were invited to Germany to play. This put the women of Zanzibar on a global stage and the country felt pride for their accomplishment. The team members started walking around in their soccer track suits and had gained respect and even a following from the men who had just recently admonished their playing.

Florence AyisiThe trip to Germany was an important one, as it started a movement. Women from surrounding communities started their own soccer teams. It was fabulous to watch these barefoot women play while their children or friends sat on the sidelines watching. The next step was for Coach Nassra to get the soccer programs into schools. There are still observant Muslims that feel that girls playing soccer is unacceptable but overall the people of Zanzibar are excited to get behind the programs.

Women’s soccer as a vehicle for change.

The film was wonderful and at the end, to everyone’s surprise, the director Florence was there for a Q&A session along with Coach Nassra, who had come from the UK and Zanzibar respectively. The questions were fabulous and added to the high we were all feeling after such a hopeful documentary. One of the audience members asked Florence about her reasons for making the documentary and she answered beautifully that sport, soccer specifically, was just the vehicle for change. It could have been anything, it just happened to be that soccer was what empowered the women of Zanzibar and offered rights and opportunities that did not previously exist. She was awesome! There was a great discussion for another 30 minutes and then we all shuffled, stiff legged after 4 hours of sitting, over to the wrap-up party for the Board members and their spouses.

Florence AyisiWell, the introvert in me wanted to head home to bed, even if it meant going alone, and I was sure glad I chose to go to the pub… because guess who sits at my little cocktail table?! Yes, the director of Zanzibar Soccer Dreams, Florence Ayisi. Well, didn’t I almost burst to be munching on french fries while asking her all my burning questions. My first question was regarding the women and the opportunities that she mentioned in the film and the Q&A.

What were their opportunities after playing soccer, aside from social empowerment and community clout?

She told Alana (the wife) and I about the jobs that come to the women that play on the soccer team, Women Fighters FC. The military and the police force come to recruit these fit and strong women. There are also government jobs available to them that were not even a consideration before the days of women’s soccer. It was great to hear.

My next question – yup, of course, how did the husbands fit into this?

She explained that the husbands who supported their wives playing were typically quite proud of their soccer abilities. The general attitude was not one of resentment but rather pride. Several of the husbands would drive their spouses to the practice area on the back of their motorcycles and dirt bikes. One of the women in the follow up film shares that her husband was not supportive of her soccer, among other issues I am guessing, and so she divorced him. Since 2007 she has remarried and is expecting her first baby. Her new husband likes sports and supports her completely so she has been playing for the last 10 years and will be returning to the game after she has her baby.

We chatted about how often women give up their careers and hobbies because it is too taxing on their partners, especially when children are involved. It was amazing to see that this was not happening in a Muslim state where women have few of the rights and freedoms relative to their North American contemporaries. Their partners, community, and country rallied around them and supported their practicing and playing.

Florence asked me what I did, and I explained that I also support women in a couple different channels, mostly through education with the bebo mia online doula college and through business support. I explained our scholarship program and my business partner’s and my goal to support women while they connect to their value and power through skilled work, education and financial security. I loved hearing her say we did the same things with different vehicles.

We wrapped up the night well after midnight and I was buzzing from having such a gift in my evening with the films and my talk with Florence. I am heading to her neck of the woods this summer with Alana and our daughter and I am excited for the opportunity to see her again. If you can get your hands on a copy of either of her women’s soccer films, I highly recommend them.

Florence – Thank you for continuing to tell the world about the amazing social changes for women that are happening because of individuals like Coach Nassra. And thank you for doing it in such a wonderful way and for documenting these movements and ensuring that they reach the global stage. It was an honour to be in your company!

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