These Women Were Told Not to Play Soccer. Instead They Formed a Team.
Away from the lights of the World Cup, on the African archipelago of Zanzibar, a group of Muslim women are challenging a culture that says only men can play soccer.
By Shannon Sims
Photographs by Nichole Sobecki
JUMBI, ZANZIBAR — “People have tried to stop me from playing,” said Riziki Abdallah, sitting in her mother’s humble home in the village of Dole in Zanzibar, a semiautonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. “They say, ‘Don’t play soccer. Soccer is only for men.’ ”
In Zanzibar, you see children playing soccer not infrequently, and people watching World Cup matches on TVs in corner restaurants, like anywhere else. But what you don’t see are women playing. Here soccer, though popular, is limited to boys and men. Through public pressure, lack of sponsorship, and family shaming, women are discouraged from playing.
“I’ve never been attacked physically,” Ms. Abdallah, 23, added, shooting a nervous glance at her mother across the room. “But they tell me and my family that they are not happy, and that I should not be playing soccer.”
Ms. Abdallah is better known in Zanzibar by her nickname, Chadole, which means the “shorty from Dole,” the rural village of a thousand people where she grew up. She is part of a community of six teams that form the women’s club soccer league in Zanzibar. Despite societal pressures derived from conservative beliefs about the role of women, the athletes in the Zanzibari women’s league persist, rallying together without resources or support because of their sheer love of the game.
Their resistance to criticism has brought them together into what feels like the beginning of a movement. On the field they laugh and embrace, and many of the players have forged close friendships. Their hope is that women’s soccer will one day receive government recognition and support of the type men’s soccer receives in Zanzibar. But most of all, they simply want to be able to play.
“I am committed to playing,” Ms. Abdallah said. “I am not afraid of anything.”
Ms. Abdallah’s insistence on playing separates her from her community in Dole, and her skill separates her from everyone else on the island. She is a star of the Zanzibari women’s national team. On the field she weaves past other players with dominance, thanks to a decade of finely honed footwork.
That footwork was on full display during a recent late afternoon game between her team, the Jumbi Woman Fighter, and the Green Queens. Jumbi, a rural village about the same size as Dole, hosted the match; it was the first game of the league’s 2018 season. Some players combed the dicey field, picking up softball-size rocks and tossing them past the sideline. The crowd began as sparse, with some family and friends beside the field but quickly grew as word of the match spread, with over a dozen more people joining. A group of young men, some in kanzus, leaned against a pile of bricks behind the goal, playfully taunting the players. “Get her!” they shouted in Swahili. “Don’t let her get past you!”
Seven of the women on the field play on the Zanzibari national team. Ramadan and the dazzling Eid al-Fitr celebrations that follow it had just ended, so many of the women still bore the signs of Eid festivities, including nails stained orange, wrists wrapped in delicate henna designs, and freshly braided hair that contrasted with their bright jerseys and neon cleats. The women don’t play soccer during Ramadan; fasting (including abstaining from drinking water) makes play in the scorching heat of Zanzibari days almost impossible. And even after the fast is broken in the evening, tradition holds that only men play in the evenings during Ramadan, if at all.
Ms. Abdallah started playing soccer when she was 11, after a coach showed up in her school classroom and asked if any girls wanted to go to the mainland of Tanzania, where women’s soccer is more widespread, to play in a match. “He said they needed girls, and that was my chance,” Ms. Abdallah said. “When I came back, I sidelined everything else.” She started borrowing cleats from her brother, and in a habit she still continues today, she started training in the early mornings in the sand along the nearby Zanzibari coast.
Her timing was fortuitous. Around the same time, a movement was afoot to start the first women’s soccer team in Zanzibar. In 2007, a documentary about the difficulty Zanzibari women faced in starting that team was making the rounds in international film festivals. It emboldened Nassra Juma Mohammed, a former Zanzibari player on the Tanzanian national team (and one of this year’s World Cup commentators in Zanzibar), to commit to starting a league. She named the first team Women Fighters (which inspired the Jumbi Woman Fighter team name), because, she recalls, “We were always fighting to be able to share the pitches with the men.” Ms. Mohammed is now considered the godmother of women’s soccer in Zanzibar, which has grown to include six teams in a women’s club league, as she envisioned.
Rukia Talib Yahya, 19, of the Green Queens recalls being told by her mother that she couldn’t play, until finally a coach who works with Ms. Mohammed came to the home and persuaded the mother to allow her to try. “There is still the perception that soccer for women is a bad practice, that it’s bad behavior,” she said in her family home in the Kiembe Samaki neighborhood outside of Zanzibar’s capital. “I’m not sure my mom is 100 percent happy.”
The island’s Muslim heritage and the conservative positions of many of the women’s families, while perhaps not causal, may be correlated. While not all Muslim families take issue with women playing soccer, the experience of the female soccer players in Zanzibar has been marked by constant criticism. In Zanzibar, 99% of the population are Muslim, while in mainland Tanzania the population is predominantly Christian. The women here usually keep their head scarves on when they play soccer in the streets or in practice, but during league games, they take them off just before the whistle blows for play to begin.
“Soccer is a man’s sport,” Hassan Tawakal, the Zanzibar Sports Council commissioner, said matter-of-factly, from his office in downtown Stone Town. He oversees both the men’s and women’s leagues in Zanzibar, but he said that “tradition” inhibits his office’s ability to effectively promote women’s soccer. “It’s hard to have soccer for women because some teams are not good role models for women,” he said. “Most coaches have said that most of the female players do not have good discipline.”
In Zanzibar, there is also a strong insinuation that women who play soccer are gay, which Mr. Tawakal believes as well. The costs of that insinuation, however gossipy it may seem to an outsider, can be grave in Zanzibar.
Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal in 38 of 54 African countries, including mainland Tanzania, where a heightened crackdown on the L.G.B.T. community has been in effect for the past couple of years. Same-sex sexual conduct among men can result in a prison sentence of 30 years to life on mainland Tanzania, and 14 years imprisonment in Zanzibar.
And although Tanzania does not have a specific law forbidding lesbianism, Zanzibar does. Section 153 of the Zanzibari penal code states that “[A]ny woman who commits an act of lesbianism with another woman whether taking an active or passive role shall be guilty of an offense and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to a fine not exceeding five hundred thousand shillings.”
If the Zanzibari women’s soccer league is somehow interpreted by the government as supporting homosexuality, women’s soccer in Zanzibar could be extinguished for good.
For that reason, some coaches of the women’s teams have taken a hard-line approach to the matter. Hassan Mwinyi, a Jumbi assistant coach, recalled how last season a woman joined the Jumbi team who they believed to be a lesbian, so they removed her from the team. When asked how he knew she was a lesbian, he said, “We just knew.”
“We can’t deny that there are lesbians on the team,” Warda Khalid Adballa, 27, of the Jumbi team said. “But playing soccer doesn’t make you a lesbian. Think about it: There are people who are lesbians and they don’t play soccer.”
The conflation of issues around women’s soccer in Zanzibar, though, means that support is hard to come by. Ms. Mohammed admits that she believes women’s soccer in Zanzibar is “far from getting government support.” Even the women’s national team, a collection of the strongest players from the club league teams, struggles to play. While last year the men’s national team received fanfare from the president, big checks and even a plot of land for placing second in the regional tournament, this year the women’s tournament was postponed four days before kickoff because of financial difficulties.
But perhaps nothing conveys the stigma that still exists in Zanzibar against women’s soccer more than the fact that girls are not able to play the sport as part of their physical education in schools.
Soccer is offered in all schools in Zanzibar, just not for girls. Girls are instead ushered toward netball, a kind of basketball-lite game with no dribbling and a designated shooter. Many women who play on the soccer teams today learned to play in the streets after school with neighborhood boys; for many of them, the league is their first chance to play with other women.
Jumbi’s head coach, Khalid Khamis Suleiman, 34, said, “I would be the happiest man if the government introduced soccer in schools for girls,” adding, “and if Chadole had grown up playing soccer in school, she would absolutely be one of the best female soccer players anywhere.”
When asked about having soccer for girls in the schools, Balozi Ali Abeid A. Karume, the son of Zanzibar’s former president and the new Minister of Information, Culture, Tourism and Sports, seemed surprised at the thought. “Women in Zanzibar like to be very feminine,” he said, “so if you tell them to participate in sports they will say, ‘No, I don’t want to be like a man.’”
He mentions his favorite all-male English premier league teams, saying he is a big soccer fan, and, eventually, he seems to come around to the idea of allowing girls to play soccer in schools. “I think I would be interested in promoting that,” he said toward the end of the interview. “It’s a good idea. I think it is something to look into, since it is where the world is headed.”
Farida Hamisi Kopnibo, 14, certainly hopes so. She is one of the youngest of Ms. Abdallah’s teammates, and is considered by coaches to be a star of the next generation of women’s soccer. With parents who both work for the government, Farida grew up in substantially different conditions from Ms. Abdallah. But despite her socioeconomic advantages, she also reports having faced difficulty in pursuing her dream of playing soccer. While sitting in the living room with her parents, she acknowledges that some of her mother’s friends don’t think she should be playing. “They are not happy,” she said.
Typically, Farida is the only girl playing on the pitch just outside her home. She quit school and does not have a job; her father said that for that reason, he supported her playing soccer. Farida said she dreams of becoming a soccer star, and that is her true focus, which is why she quit school. “If I had the chance to play soccer in school,” she added, “yes, I would definitely go back to school.”
At the end of the game, the score was Jumbi 2-0, with Ms. Abdallah scoring one of the goals. One player had to be carried off the field in visible pain. Without the money to spare or the sponsors to pick up the tab, the women don’t play with any sort of shin guards, and the field is uneven terrain; injuries are frequent.
All of the players congratulated one another and then went to their bags, pulled out their head scarves and wrapped them around their sweaty hair.
Shannon Sims was a 2018 African Great Lakes Reporting Fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Nichole Sobecki is a freelance photojournalist and writer in Nairobi, Kenya.