“We started in 2009 with five girls who really had to fight for their right to play football [soccer in the U.S.] in their communities and families,” said Rami Khader, the manager of the Diyar Academy for Children and Youth in Bethlehem, Palestine, and one of the initiators of the women’s football program.
I followed him through the noisy indoor stadium during football practice. On one side, a young woman coached small boys and girls and on the other, teenage girls kicked a football around. Neither scene would have been imaginable just seven years ago.
At that time, leaders of Diyar, which is affiliated with the Palestinian Lutheran denomination and a mission partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), were looking for programs that would empower women in Palestinian society. They were inspired by the efforts of a local congregation member, Honey Thaljieh. She had organized some women to play football together, and Khader says Diyar saw the potential and decided to take it on as a program aimed at improving gender equality within the community.
“Our first team that began the program were actually the fighters, because they had to pave that road for the other girls,” Khader said. He described the many obstacles the team faced in the early days, in the midst of a society in which even those who believed women were equal still believed they could not play football. Some found it too strange, some were concerned about their daughters traveling on their own away from home for games, and some were concerned about their daughters’ prospects for marriage if they were seen as a tomboy.
However, Khader believes that attitudes began to change as families saw the girls’ passion for the game and what they were learning from it: fair play, confidence, healthy competitiveness, equality on the field, leadership, and more. More families were willing to let their girls play, stadiums began to fill with spectators for games, and the local news began to report on the girls’ football games.
“It turned out to be one of the most successful programs we had encountered. We went from having a society in total denial of women playing football to full stadiums of men and women watching games,” said Khader.
Today, the program consists of three teams with a fourth team under formation. One team has been the champion of their age group in Palestine for three years running. When the program began, they were one of the first teams in Palestine; now there are twenty-one.
Khader believes deeply in the positive impact of the program. “The girls have started to believe that the sky is really the limit. If you told anyone in the Palestinian community about women’s football eight years ago, they’d say that it was a dream, that it’s not possible. The program makes the girls believe that women’s leadership in Palestine is not impossible.”
He even suggests that the impact goes far behind their own community: “When our girls go now to other countries to play, they feel equal to others; they don’t feel inferior like they don’t have the infrastructure to play football. Actually, we created that infrastructure. I think our teams serve as ambassadors of women in Palestine, because images in the media are very distorted. You don’t see powerful images of women leaders; you only see that women are oppressed. I think our players serve to show the world that women leaders in Palestine are doing great work."
I had the privilege of speaking with two of the program’s participants, Saurabh (19) and Natalie (10). Saurabh was a member of that first team, which continues to this day. Now she also coaches two of the younger teams and is leading the formation of the fourth team. She said she always had incredible support from her mother, but that it was a challenge to be accepted in her community.
Khader added that Saurabh lives in a very conservative community, and one that is close to an Israeli settlement. Saurabh always had to leave football practice early so she would avoid traveling near the settlement after dark, when she would be more likely to be harassed or find the roads closed by the military.
Saurabh says playing football has impacted her life greatly: “I’ve been playing with Diyar since I was twelve. I used to really feel I cannot talk to people or get connected with others. I never felt I could lead others. But being on this team helped me be more confident and believe in myself—not just as a player but as a coach.”
When asked how her involvement was received by family and community, Natalie gives a confident smile and says, “Everyone supports me, even at school. The whole school plays football.” Khader and Saurabh credit this difference in experience with the great strides the program has made in increasing their community’s acceptance of women’s football; “Each year we feel people are more open to us,” Saurabh says.
I asked both players what their hopes were for the future. Saurabh desires to get more training and certification and to be able to pass her skills along to a new generation of female players. With Natalie’s father sitting across the table, patiently waiting to take his daughter home after the interview, she tells me enthusiastically, “I hope to be a professional football player one day.”
Khader also has big hopes for the future: “I hope that this program will be a pillar in women’s rights in Palestine and an example of gender equality and empowerment.” He said proudly that women who went through their program are now leaders and professionals who are advancing change in their society and leading the next generation. He hopes that as the program continues, they can reach a point where all their coaches are women. He is quick to clarify that this is not about excluding men or suggesting that men cannot be good coaches to the girls’ teams, but rather about providing female role models to the players.
Khader invites any who are inspired by the program to support them financially and to tell the girls’ story to show how women in Palestine are changing their society. Khader says, “The success of this program is an example of how it is possible for women’s leadership to convince a conservative society that women are equal even in the most challenging area- in playing football.”
The Rev. Kate Taber is a PC(USA) facilitator for Peacemaking and Mission Partnerships in Israel-Palestine. Read Kate Taber’s letters to learn more about her ministry in Israel and Palestine.