Film review: women footballers struggle to play (and win)


Honey Thaljieh founded the first Palestinian women’s  national football team.

One of the greatest obstacles for Palestinian football or soccer players in
the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip is simply getting to practice. Israeli
military checkpoints made practicing on a real grass pitch nearly impossible for
the Bethlehem-based Palestinian Women’s National Football Team, as accessing the
limited facilities within the West Bank between 2003 and 2009 required several
hours of travel each way for each player. The team’s struggle to play is
documented in celebrated filmmaker Sawsan Qaoud’s new film Women in
the Stadium.

Qaoud documents how the idea for a women’s team was brought to life — and
recounts the difficulties the players face on a regular basis just to play. This
is the latest in a series of films that Qaoud has made about the plight of women
living under Israeli occupation; others include Women and Elections
(2006), Bedroom (2004) and Mothers (2003).

After years of playing football with the boys but without a team to call her
own, Honey Thaljieh spearheaded the effort to start the women’s team in 2003,
and remains the side’s captain to this day. With the help of Bethlehem
University Athletics Director Samar Mousa, Thaljieh recruited several local
players, slowly building the team into an internationally-recognized football
squad with approximately twenty regular players.

Women in the Stadium highlights the stories of some of the players
who were forced to bring an untimely end to their football careers because of
the nature of Israeli military checkpoints. Even after hours of waiting at the
checkpoints, Israeli forces might simply deny entry to a player, or worse,
detain the person intent on passing through.

Under these conditions, the costs of team membership were simply too much to
bear for some players.

While checkpoints within the West Bank have posed a challenge for the team,
moving to and from Gaza is nearly possible. Since the team’s inception, the full
squad has only been able to meet on foreign soil, meeting for the first time in
Egypt just days before a tournament. Obviously, this has had a negative impact
on team cohesion.

Yet, even when the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of the occupation did
not deter the players from regular participation, almost all of the women faced
at least some social pressure to end their involvement with the team.

Social hurdles

Women in the Stadium takes a nuanced look at the challenges and joys
of being a woman footballer in Palestine. Aware that it has an important role to
play in the promotion of the women’s game, the film addresses many of the
misperceptions about gender and football that create obstacles to female
participation and succeeds in making a Palestinian story relevant for a
global audience.

International organizations, from FIFA, the global
football governing body, to the United Nations and grassroots organizations have
promoted the importance of gender equality in football. Yet perhaps more than
any other sport, the “world’s” game remains a man’s domain across the globe. As
result, many people assume that women who do play are abnormal, that they will
become “unfeminine,” or will simply not play well.

Throughout the documentary, the players prove all of these assumptions to be
blatantly wrong.

The first social hurdle for Palestine’s players usually comes in their teens
when peers and parents might begin to see football as an inappropriate way for a
young woman to spend her time. One key scene in the film features Thaljieh
visiting a teenage girls’ team where she learns that one girl’s father had
previously opposed her participation once she began wearing the hijab
(headscarf), thinking that his daughter had become too old to play. His daughter
persisted. Like many of the women on the national team, she proved that adhering
to her own standards of personal dress did not conflict with
playing football.

Marriage is another major obstacle to maintaining a full national squad
roster because even in families where the players’ participation has become
acceptable, most of the women themselves could not conceive of continuing their
careers in football after marrying — and the pressure to do so starts early.
Aware of this high rate of player turnover, the members of the current squad
recognize that the team’s survival depends on training the next generation of
Palestinian female players, meaning that many of today’s players have become
active in youth and community outreach to promote the game. The film has
captured this work at its best.

Qaoud goes out of her way to show that the players are extraordinary in their
persistence and dedication to the game and are able to remain normal, young
women who are concerned about their families, friends, school and even party
dresses. While it is deeply unfortunate that such justifications are necessary,
both the filmmaker and her subjects realize that fighting for the right of women
to play football hinges on diffusing precisely these social constructs.

Making women footballers’ voices heard

On a technical level, the documentary benefits from Qaoud’s extensive
filmmaking experience, as she laces individual interviews and group footage with
clips from the team’s actual matches. The film focuses on the narratives of four
players from diverse religious and geographical backgrounds, while giving
special weight to the story of the team’s captain.

Ultimately, the film shows that football has allowed these women to build a
family-like team. It emphasizes the players’ strong work ethic and the courage
to make choices for themselves — whether that involves football or not.

While the film’s 16 July world premiere at Ramallah’s Al-Kasaba Theatre and
Cinematheque suffered from a few minor technical problems and the English
subtitles could have used some editing, Sawsan Qaoud’s latest offering is
definitely worth a viewing, and its release at the end of the Women’s World Cup
could not have been more appropriately timed. The film is an opportunity to make
the story of the women’s national team and its players heard not only in
Palestine but also throughout the world.

( / 12.08.2011)

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