A Pioneer of Egyptian Women's Football
The Egyptian football trainer Sahar al-Hawari has waged many battles with conservatives, who regard women playing football as incompatible with Islamic morals. This July, her team will be playing football at the youth games in Germany. Nelly Youssef spoke with Sahar al-Hawari
What sort of reaction to women's football have you encountered from religious scholars and conservative Egyptians?
Sahar al-Hawari: In 1996, I had numerous conflicts with the Egyptian Football Association after establishing the first Egyptian football team for women. Since then, I have had to face scathing criticism. Some view this sport as not being compatible with the Middle Eastern sense of morality. Others, primarily religious and conservative groups in society, regard women's football as contradicting Islamic teachings.
In some newspapers and in other opposition media, it has even been stated that football is an activity for men and that women have no business getting involved. The criticism slowly died down when people started to realize that a strict interpretation of our beliefs would entail banning all women's sports.
There was also the objection from the religious side that football uniforms didn't sufficiently cover the female body. I responded by saying that the clothing covers most of the body, and besides, the spectators are concentrating on the skill of the players, not on their bodies.
Public opinion gradually began to change. The press only criticized us when we played badly. It was no longer a matter of mocking young women for playing football. We finally managed to overcome the traditionally felt aversion to seeing women on the football field! Even the media increasingly took interest in our sport.
Some of our games have already been broadcast live, like those from the first Arab Women's Football Championship held last April. The championship was truly a massive step towards the emancipation of women. It showed the extent to which the population of Arab countries supports the participation of women in all spheres of society, even in football.
How did your passion for football begin?
Al-Hawari: I can thank my father, the international referee Izzat al-Hawari, for that. He introduced me to the world. I went with him to the club since my earliest childhood and there he taught me to play football.
Right after completing my studies at the American University, I decided to devote myself to the field of sport. In the early 1990s, after convincing the Egyptian Football Association to support women's football, I began searching for players in the poorer areas throughout the whole of Egypt. I visited clubs in which girls pursued other sports, I turned to their friends, and also to their families.
I pleaded with them to let me train their daughters for one year. I had 25 girls between the ages of 15 and 22 living with me at home. We have trained together for five years. I even had to sell part of my belongings in order to realize my dream. In the meanwhile, these young Egyptian women are really playing well. They've taken part in international championships and have truly swept the board.
Were there problems with the girls' families?
Al-Hawari: Of course, it wasn't easy. But the girls got their way. Over time, they became increasingly open. Some of the village girls have even stopped wearing their headscarves. And the majority of them feel good about playing. I have a strong will and I don't knuckle under easily. I didn't relax until I received support from FIFA for my suggestion that Arab organizations in countries with no women's team should not receive any support.
I have also been strongly promoting women's football in other Arab countries. Since early 2003, for example, I've been active with the Bahrain Football Association. I also convinced the UAE Football Association to establish a national team for women.
I persuaded the University of Kuwait to stage a football tournament together with other women's universities. This provoked massive opposition from conservative Muslims in Kuwait, as they regard the encroachment of women into traditional male domains as an act of rebellion.
Last month, the German team and its trainer Tina Theune-Meyer were visiting Egypt. What have the young Egyptian players learned from the visit?
Al-Hawari: A great deal. Team spirit, the disadvantages of going it alone, and the latest German training methods. The trainer of the German women confirmed the high level of playing by the Egyptian players. Some of the Egyptian girls could even transfer to the European professional league.
We've accomplished all this, even though the ability to support our players is quite modest in comparison with a country like Germany. She also pointed out our mistakes. For instance, the build-up to our game is too slow, and our play is too unorganized. We will certainly profit much more from this exchange when we take part this July in the games of the UNESCO World Youth Festival in Stuttgart.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by John Bergeron