Aseel Nawas is passionate about football. After school and homework, the first thing this 15-year-old will do is catch up on the latest football news, especially about Real Madrid, her favorite team.
And she plays. Every Monday and Thursday, Aseel trains for the Khadamat al-Nuseirat junior women’s team in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.
“I used to play football with my friends in the neighborhood,” Aseel told The Electronic Intifada in explaining a passion that started when she was 8. “Football is the best thing that has happened to me and I wish one day that I can go to Brazil where women can play freely.”
Aseel, whose family wound up refugees in Nuseirat after being expelled from the now demolished Huj – a village northeast of Gaza – by Zionist forces in 1948, is one of a burgeoning number of Palestinian girls and women in who are taking to sport with a view to making it a professional career. It’s not an easy choice, less so in the more conservative Gaza Strip.
Her junior girls’ team comprises some 20 players and was established in 2016 when the club announced an effort – in part spurred by the success of women’s sports in the occupied West Bank – to enroll girls.
The effort was coordinated with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, but the first obstacle was to convince families, according to Hussam Abu Dalal, the club’s public relations officer.
“At the beginning, it was difficult for us due to the social misconceptions that this game is just for men, and the refusal of families to let their daughters participate,” said Abu Dalal.
Club members then took the initiative to make home visits to families to gain their trust and motivate them to allow their daughters the opportunity to break these social stigmas. Eventually, a number of girls were signed up, said Abu Dalal, and now families regularly turn out to training sessions to encourage their daughters.
Turning a corner
Palestinian women’s football began in earnest in 2004, when the first national women’s football team was established. From 2005 to 2008, local teams began springing up in the West Bank, including Sareyyet Ramallah, Baladna in Jericho, and al-Assema. In 2008, the first women’s football tournament was organized in the West Bank with the participation of six teams.
According to the Palestinian Football Association, there are 12 women’s football teams in the West Bank, but just six junior teams for players aged between 12 and 16 in Gaza.
Ghadir Shalabi, 16, plays midfield for Khadamat al-Nuseirat but had to battle her family long and hard to be able to do so.
“I had to to argue strongly, persist and promise that playing football would not affect my studies,” said Ghadir, whose family is originally from Isdud, northeast of Gaza.
Ghadir’s father Muhammad Shalabi, 42, said he had not been keen on the idea of a women’s football team, especially one that included his own daughter.
“Now, I can see the difference in her,” Muhammad told The Electronic Intifada. “She is so active, she has organized her time to make room for studying and for football. I am proud of her. I’d advise my friends and everyone else to let their sons and daughters practice the sport they love.”
Ghadir’s team includes twins Maysa and Jumana al-Tawil, 12, whose family originially is from al-Maghar, a village in historic Palestine destroyed by Zionist forces in 1948. Both are defenders and both want nothing more than to bring home an international cup.
“We wear the same strip,” said Maysa. “It carries our club name. And all we talk about is to win an international tournament and return back with the cup.”
Obstacles for all
But national, let alone international, competitions remain a distant dream. The ability to travel is one of the biggest obstacles to sport in the West Bank and Gaza: for both women and men. While funding, especially in the impoverished Gaza Strip, is a perennial problem, access to the outside world condemns Palestinian sportspeople to a life of isolation.
In February, Khadamat al-Nuseirat won a local tournament and attracted attention from West Bank clubs. The team remains confined to Gaza, however, since Israel has not granted permits for travel to the West Bank through the Erez checkpoint. No team from Gaza, therefore, contests the Palestinian national league.
And Israel is not the only obstacle. In September, Khadamat al-Nuseirat was invited to train and play in Egypt. But the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing on Gaza’s southern boundary remains largely closed and is difficult to cross even when open, and such participation also remains a pipe dream for the ambitious youngsters.
“We need to build the capacities of our sportswomen in the Gaza Strip,” said Ahmad Haroun, the sports supervisor with Khadamat al-Nuseirat. “The girls are very passionate about the game and after winning the tournament here, are very eager to participate in the West Bank league. But due to the siege imposed by the occupation, this is not possible.”
Haroun said Khadamat al-Nuseirat, in spite of the difficulties, is hoping to expand female sport with plans for tennis and volleyball teams. And Suha Abu Dalal, the coach of the girls’ team, said this was about more than just sport.
“The girls love football,” said Abu Dalal. “But their playing it, here in Nuseirat camp, with all the financial difficulties we face, is also a message to the rest of the camp of how spirit can prevail over circumstances.”
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.