Women athletes break barriers inside and outside Gaza

The Gaza women’s table tennis team with their coach and administrators.

Shadi Alqarra The Electronic Intifada

A women’s tennis table team is set to leave Gaza for Jordan to participate in an international Arab table tennis tournament in October. The four-strong team is traveling for the first time since Israel imposed tightened closure measures on Gaza in 2007.

The anticipated departure of the team for the tournament — an annual event hosted by the Arab Table Tennis Federation — comes as a result of a slight easing of the strict conditions at Rafah crossing by Egyptian authorities. Rafah is the only outlet from Gaza besides those between the coastal territory and Israel.

“When I was a little girl, my father used to encourage us to play table tennis to the extent that he bought us a table tennis to play at home,” Ruba al-Zubaidi, a 31-year-old mother of two, told The Electronic Intifada at Gaza City’s al-Jazeera Sports Club, where she was training with her teammates.

“During the 1991 war in Iraq, we were locked down inside our homes along with the whole population of Gaza for weeks by orders of the Israeli occupation,” al-Zubaidi recalled cheerfully. “This was a good chance for me to practice my favorite sport.”

Al-Zubaidi’s international sporting career began in 1996-1997 when she represented Palestinian universities in a championship in Jordan.

Hailing from the central Gaza Strip town of Deir al-Balah, al-Zubaidi insists that despite the increasing conservatism of Gaza, women should still participate in sports.

“Look, the people are the ones who set the social traditions and customs in any given society. As you see, my husband has allowed me to practice my favorite sport, respecting me the way I have respected him,” al-Zubaidi said. “Women here should be no longer marginalized, frankly. It is enough that we live under siege.”

Stop ignoring equal rights

As she took up sports as a child, al-Zubaidi hopes her ten-year-old daughter will do the same. “I do hope she will have the chance like me to practice her favorite activities and that our community will stop ignoring women’s equal rights to men,” al-Zubaidi added.

The youngest team member is Hadeel Saba, aged 13, from Gaza City, who got her start playing at the Christian Youth Association in Gaza.

“I feel that I have freed myself from the occupation and I feel I am defying the occupation by means of my sports and being able to participate in a championship abroad,” Saba said.

Reem al-Zaeem, 23, a graduate in information technology, was just as enthusiastic as her teammates.

“I began my career as a table tennis player during high school, then I went on playing at university. We have been training here at the club for the past five weeks and we are excited to take part in the upcoming contest,” al-Zaeem said.

Her family has been fully supportive of her efforts. “Our social traditions here do not allow us to get involved in such activities but my own family has really encouraged me to play table tennis without impediments,” al-Zaeem added. “I do hope to represent Palestine in more worldwide competitions in the future, God willing.”

The fourth member of the team is Yasmine Eliyan, 28 years old.

Khamis al-Habet, the team’s coach, looks forward to better conditions for women’s sports in Gaza.

“Currently, the team trains three days a week for a couple of hours only,” he explained. “I have made contacts with the Egyptian sports club of al-Ahli to see if it can host the team for four days of intensive training before the championships start.”

“This is first time for the team to participate in an international championship. Our women will possibly play against very skillful Chinese women players,” al-Habet said.

Encouraging women’s athletics in Gaza

Gaza women have a history as sports pioneers. Sanna Abubkheet, a runner, was one of only three athletes, and the first and only woman, to represent Palestine in the Olympics at Athens in 2004.

At the time, her travails, training in difficult conditions, without any sponsors and only a single pair of running shoes, and in a full-length track suit to avoid some local disapproval, made world headlines.

Women athletes still face considerable barriers. The al-Jazeera Sports Club was established in 2007 by a group of local businessmen. The club is licensed by the sports and youth ministry, which is controlled by the Hamas party.

Ali al-Nazli, the club’s director, and himself a well-known former athlete in Gaza, spoke to The Electronic Intifada about the development of women’s sports in territory.

Women’s athletics in the Gaza Strip have been limited and confined to closed areas such as gyms or certain women’s associations or clubs. According to the socially conservative norms in Gaza, women do not do sports or exercise in public.

“We are the first-ever club in Gaza that has taken the initiative. For the past couple of years, we have organized a number of sports activities such as swimming classes for women in closed areas with the help of female trainers; we managed to train more than 150 women of different ages,” al-Nazli said.

According to al-Nazli, the youth and sports ministry has approved the club’s activities relating to women.

“We have broken the barrier that is in the face of women’s sports in Gaza,” he said.

Ruba al-Zubaidi and her team mates are undaunted by the ongoing challenges:

“We are proud to take part in such the championship, coming out of the Israeli blockade of Gaza.”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.