Soccer Is Still Out of Reach for Half the World’s Women
The U.S. women’s soccer team should use their stage to demand that all governments support women in soccer.
Almost 27 million viewers in the U.S. watched the country defeat Japan in a stunning 5-2 victory during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final Sunday. This was the largest U.S. audience ever to watch a soccer match—a testament to the growing popularity and global power of women’s sports teams. Yet as we watched with our young daughters the game from Turkey, where girls soccer teams are scant and female players face discrimination and harassment, our enthusiasm was tempered by a stark reality: For many of the world’s women, playing soccer is a distant dream.
Across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia, millions of women face legal, cultural, and religious barriers that forbid them from entering the pitch. Even in countries where there are no formal restrictions, women often face death threats, accusations of unfeminine behavior, and heckling and catcalling from strangers on the sidelines. In some countries, women are even forbidden from entering soccer stadiums just to watch.
Can we really celebrate American women as world champs with such an uneven playing field?
In Middle Eastern countries including Yemen, Oman, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, nascent women’s national teams confront religious challenges to their participation. Clerics in Saudi Arabia have said that female sports constitute “steps of the devil” toward immortality. Egyptian women report that family members are often the ones to keep girls off the field, telling them that soccer is haram, forbidden in Islam. Afghan women players have received threatening text messages. Indian women were recently forced off the field after a Muslim cleric issued a fatwa against men watching girls play in skirts.
In some African countries, women are effectively kept off the field by the lack of sports bras and sanitary napkins, as well as financial unwillingness to support them. Ugandan women’s under-20 soccer team, for example, never even made it to the World Cup—their government pulled them from competing at the last hour, citing lack of funds.
When women athletes do make it onto the field, they often confront an onslaught of opinions on how they should—or shouldn’t—dress. In countries with hot temperatures, players are often forced to cover up their wrists and legs. In Iran, Singapore, France and elsewhere, women wearing the hijab are not allowed to play. FIFA has played a major part in this unfairness—until 2012, the organization banned headscarves.
In South America, the pressure can go the other way. In Brazil, where only about 1% of soccer players are women, team owners have tried to sexualize female footballers, issuing skimpy uniforms as a tactic to attract crowds. In what is known as one of the world’s most soccer-loving nations, the law kept women out of soccer until 1979 because it was “incompatible with female nature.”
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*Xanthe Ackerman and Christina Asquith are journalists with The Fuller Project for International Reporting. Fuller Project research fellows Zarifah Mohamed Zein and Ilina Talwar contributed to the reporting. Join the discussion: #LetGirlsLearn.