KARACHI: Ten years ago, in Tehran’s Ararat Stadium, the Iranian women’s national football team played a match against Kreuzberg-Berlin. It was the first public women’s football match since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In the audience, only women were allowed. The result (2-2) became a minor matter when the game became a political issue and the Iranian federation stopped the teams from playing the second leg.
A decade later, the Iranian national team got the chance to step on to a German pitch again to complete the unfinished match, to play the second leg. However, this time again the result (4-2 in favour of Germany) mattered little; the women of Iran were not being morally policed, a big achievement in itself.
The Iranians weren’t the only ones to have felt liberated, the Afghans and Pakistanis felt the same. Earlier this month, footballers from 11 different countries were invited to play at the all-women ‘Discover Football’ festival. Players from Afghanistan, France, Greece, Italy, Pakistan, Kenya, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkey participated in the event.
The sports festival that ran from August 29 to September 5 had more to it than just football. It was the continuation of a game which was left incomplete. It was an intercultural exchange of life experiences where the common language was football.
The exact number of participants was expected to be 100; however, the tally in the end was 104 female footballers. Four Pakistani players from Karachi United also made it to the international arena.
The club named four of its players – Khadija Kazmi, Sarah Ali, Nina Zehri and the author of this feature – to represent them and the country in the festival.
Since the entire team couldn’t make it to the festival due to technical issues, the four players were asked to play in teams which had a mixed caucus. The teams received training every day before they participated in their friendly matches.
My team included French and Kenyan women; Khadija played alongside women from Sudan and Turkey, while Nina and Sarah played with the Palestinians and a Saudi national. For eight days, the teams spent most of their time training and playing.
“It was very memorable for me since I scored a winning goal for my team,” said 23-year-old Nina who has been playing for Karachi United since 2010. “I was physically the smallest in the team so they picked me up and threw me in the air a few times.”
Nina added: “I felt I stunned many people who thought Pakistani women couldn’t play football.”
Sarah felt connected to her team and the festival renewed her passion for the sport. “The best part about being there was realising there are other women struggling with some similar issues and some completely different issues. It gave me new-found motivation to continue to struggle and persevere,” she said.
During the visit, the players met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which underlined the importance of the game and the players from other countries.
Women from countries such as Sudan and Afghanistan explained how they had to play football secretly in their countries. “Women and football do not go together in my country. Girls are expected to be docile and soft,” explained Sarah Jubara from Sudan.
“In Sudan, women cannot play football in public places,” said Jubara, adding that her team plays the sport in halls behind closed doors in secret. She added that sometimes they secretly played with supportive male footballers.
The case is nearly the same with the Afghans, where players would have to book gymnasiums and pack up 15 minutes before their time so that the men won’t see them play.
The problems faced by these women felt close to home and heart. Hardly any facilities for women to play football exist – be they outdoor or indoor.