Palestinian girls defy tradition with soccer craze

Palestinian women's soccer, which began in 2008 with a single team at Bethlehem University, has since developed into two local leagues.
F. Anthea Schaap
A generation of "soccer-crazy girls" is growing up in Palestinian society, surprising most outsiders.

When the Palestinian national women's soccer team entered the stadium in Amman, even supporters of the rival Jordanian team were cheering. The rare sight of female soccer players in red-and-white uniforms with scarves spelling “Palestine” around their necks left no one unmoved. That match, a qualification meet for the Olympics, was lost 0-6, but only cries of joy were heard in the locker rooms.

F. Anthea Schaap

“These girls usually don't stand a chance," says Anthea Schaap, a German photographer who documented their journey. "They don't have the resources, they don't even train regularly because it's too expensive. But for them it's not about winning, it's about playing. Every time they step onto the field is an achievement, because ten years ago no one would have thought it was possible.”

Palestinian women's soccer, which began in 2008 with a single team at Bethlehem University, has since developed into two local leagues, each with some half a dozen teams, and a national team, including groups for players under the ages of 18 and 16.

F. Anthea Schaap

28-year-old Schaap, also a soccer player in her youth, followed the girls' training and matches for months, allowing her to observe the change in Palestinian society's attitude towards the girls' unusual occupation. These days, she says, one can see the faces of the national team's players on Coca-Cola ads all over Ramallah, a testimony to the public's growing recognition of the field.

But every one of the girls struggled in order to reach this point.

F. Anthea Schaap

Most young girls first discover soccer in the street, mimicking their brothers, but as they reach puberty, the social pressure to assume their “female duties” intensifies, forcing many to quit the game. Those who continue reach another crossroads when they get married or start a family.

"In most cases, it's the final stop for their soccer career," notes Schaap, "but there are exceptions. Some of the players on the national team are in their late twenties and there are even two or three married girls.

F. Anthea Schaap

"I met one girl who was about to get married and this was a big topic to discuss, the fact that she wants to continue playing after the wedding and after she becomes a mother," says Schaap. "She talked a lot about how important it is to her and about how many guys just think it's a hobby and that at some point this 'nonsense' needs to stop. In the end, the wedding was canceled."

Soccer is more than a pastime for these girls, Schaap emphasizes. "Most of them have jobs on the side, since they can't live off playing soccer, but this is their greatest passion in life," she explains.

F. Anthea Schaap

And for those on the national team, the pride of representing Palestinians plays a big role. “They see this as a statement, not only as young Palestinian women playing sports, but also in regard to their national identity, especially during international tournaments – and the public appreciates them for it," says Schaap.

A generation of "soccer-crazy girls" is growing up in Palestinian society, insists Schaap, a trend that comes as a surprise for most outsiders. “Also in Germany, all one hears about are the tragedies, the wars and attacks, and people can't imagine that Palestinians also lead normal lives.

“Everyone knows about the conflict, which of course also affects the girls, and often they are forced to miss practice because the road are closed, for example – but they want their story to be about more than the political situation they are caught in," she adds. "They want to be seen as strong and independent, and send a positive message from the region.”

Polina Garaev is i24NEWS's correspondent in Germany.

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