Film review: women footballers struggle to play (and win)

Honey Thaljieh founded the first Palestinian women’s national football team.

Luay Sababa The Electronic Intifada

One of the greatest obstacles for Palestinian football or soccer players in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is simply getting to practice. Israeli military checkpoints made practicing on a real grass pitch nearly impossible for the Bethlehem-based Palestinian Women’s National Football Team, as accessing the limited facilities within the West Bank between 2003 and 2009 required several hours of travel each way for each player. The team’s struggle to play is documented in celebrated filmmaker Sawsan Qaoud’s new film Women in the Stadium.

Qaoud documents how the idea for a women’s team was brought to life — and recounts the difficulties the players face on a regular basis just to play. This is the latest in a series of films that Qaoud has made about the plight of women living under Israeli occupation; others include Women and Elections (2006), Bedroom (2004) and Mothers (2003).

After years of playing football with the boys but without a team to call her own, Honey Thaljieh spearheaded the effort to start the women’s team in 2003, and remains the side’s captain to this day. With the help of Bethlehem University Athletics Director Samar Mousa, Thaljieh recruited several local players, slowly building the team into an internationally-recognized football squad with approximately twenty regular players.

Women in the Stadium highlights the stories of some of the players who were forced to bring an untimely end to their football careers because of the nature of Israeli military checkpoints. Even after hours of waiting at the checkpoints, Israeli forces might simply deny entry to a player, or worse, detain the person intent on passing through.

Under these conditions, the costs of team membership were simply too much to bear for some players.

While checkpoints within the West Bank have posed a challenge for the team, moving to and from Gaza is nearly possible. Since the team’s inception, the full squad has only been able to meet on foreign soil, meeting for the first time in Egypt just days before a tournament. Obviously, this has had a negative impact on team cohesion.

Yet, even when the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of the occupation did not deter the players from regular participation, almost all of the women faced at least some social pressure to end their involvement with the team.

Social hurdles

Women in the Stadium takes a nuanced look at the challenges and joys of being a woman footballer in Palestine. Aware that it has an important role to play in the promotion of the women’s game, the film addresses many of the misperceptions about gender and football that create obstacles to female participation and succeeds in making a Palestinian story relevant for a global audience.

International organizations, from FIFA, the global football governing body, to the United Nations and grassroots organizations have promoted the importance of gender equality in football. Yet perhaps more than any other sport, the “world’s” game remains a man’s domain across the globe. As result, many people assume that women who do play are abnormal, that they will become “unfeminine,” or will simply not play well.

Throughout the documentary, the players prove all of these assumptions to be blatantly wrong.

The first social hurdle for Palestine’s players usually comes in their teens when peers and parents might begin to see football as an inappropriate way for a young woman to spend her time. One key scene in the film features Thaljieh visiting a teenage girls’ team where she learns that one girl’s father had previously opposed her participation once she began wearing the hijab (headscarf), thinking that his daughter had become too old to play. His daughter persisted. Like many of the women on the national team, she proved that adhering to her own standards of personal dress did not conflict with playing football.

Marriage is another major obstacle to maintaining a full national squad roster because even in families where the players’ participation has become acceptable, most of the women themselves could not conceive of continuing their careers in football after marrying — and the pressure to do so starts early. Aware of this high rate of player turnover, the members of the current squad recognize that the team’s survival depends on training the next generation of Palestinian female players, meaning that many of today’s players have become active in youth and community outreach to promote the game. The film has captured this work at its best.

Qaoud goes out of her way to show that the players are extraordinary in their persistence and dedication to the game and are able to remain normal, young women who are concerned about their families, friends, school and even party dresses. While it is deeply unfortunate that such justifications are necessary, both the filmmaker and her subjects realize that fighting for the right of women to play football hinges on diffusing precisely these social constructs.

Making women footballers’ voices heard

On a technical level, the documentary benefits from Qaoud’s extensive filmmaking experience, as she laces individual interviews and group footage with clips from the team’s actual matches. The film focuses on the narratives of four players from diverse religious and geographical backgrounds, while giving special weight to the story of the team’s captain.

Ultimately, the film shows that football has allowed these women to build a family-like team. It emphasizes the players’ strong work ethic and the courage to make choices for themselves — whether that involves football or not.

While the film’s 16 July world premiere at Ramallah’s Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque suffered from a few minor technical problems and the English subtitles could have used some editing, Sawsan Qaoud’s latest offering is definitely worth a viewing, and its release at the end of the Women’s World Cup could not have been more appropriately timed. The film is an opportunity to make the story of the women’s national team and its players heard not only in Palestine but also throughout the world.

Michelle Gyeney is researching the policy incoherence of development practice in Palestine and writing from Nablus, West Bank.