by Paul Williams
Women’s football is riding a wave of momentum at the moment that has propelled the sport to a whole new level, as witnessed by the action in France at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Record crowds for club and international matches, unprecedented media coverage and marketing campaigns that finally put female footballers front and centre. This is a seminal moment in this history of the women’s game. It will only get even bigger from here.
But away from the bright lights of Paris, from the record crowds and the adoring fans, the struggle for some just to play the game remains as real as ever.
One such example is Hajra Khan, captain of the Pakistan national team. Or is she? Can you be captain of a team that hasn’t played for five years? In any case, that’s beside the point. The fact remains the women’s national team in Pakistan remains dormant after five long years, with the male-dominated Pakistan Football Federation paying scant regard to Khan and her teammates.
“Women’s football in Pakistan, I have seen in the past decade, has been just a tick-box activity that they do as a formality just for the funds to keep coming in,” she despairs.
“It’s very frustrating because a lot of girls on the national team – we had lawyers, dentists, economists, doctors – were playing for the love of the game and the country. We used to get paid about $3 (USD) a day when we were in camp, so we definitely didn’t do it for the money.”
Khan has battled all her life for acceptance, not just within her own conservative society, but even within her own family.
“(Pakistan) is a conservative country so a lot of parents don’t support their daughters to play,” Khan, 25, explains. “I had extremely good support from my family, but although I had support from my immediate family I didn’t have support from my extended family, mostly my Dad’s side of the family.
“They had an issue with (a girl playing football) and said ‘this is not how it works in our family, it’s disgraceful to the family and you should stop your daughter from playing’.”
Thankfully for Khan, her parents refused to listen, encouraging her to follow her dreams, but it meant she and her family were estranged from her extended family for almost five years before they finally accepted her pursuit.
Acceptance is something that doesn’t come easily, especially in conservative West Asia, where women continue to face abuse, both physical and verbal, and shame for even daring to play the game. Take the sickening reports of rampant sexual assault and rape in Afghanistan for example.
But there is one country showing the way forward for the entire region – Jordan.
Under the guidance of HRH Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who was instrumental in overturning the ban on wearing the hijab while playing, the Jordan FA has shown the women’s game, and those who play it, the one thing they crave the most – respect.
“Without him I don’t think women’s football would have accomplished what we have accomplished,” Jordan’s captain, Stephanie al-Naber, told Optus Sport.
“For him to fight with us, (to) fight all the people in Jordan and support us, and to give us whatever we need to be able to play football in such a conservative country, this is what made us pursue our dreams.”
Like Khan, al-Naber faced prejudices when she was growing up and had no visible role models, as women’s football didn’t exist in any meaningful form.
“We started football from scratch,” she proudly exclaims.
“There weren’t role models to look up to, there wasn’t a football team to show (girls) that ‘I want to be like that, I want to reach the national team’.
“I used to play with my brothers and cousins in the house and in the street, because back then we didn’t have the academies or fields where we could play, there wasn’t any women’s clubs back then.”
“I dreamt of wearing the national team uniform with the flag on my chest. It was a dream. I really, really believed that one day it would be possible for us to do that.”
Not only has that dream become a reality, but al-Naber is now part of a generation that is inspiring the future, and she swells with pride when she talks about the societal changes that have taken place in the Kingdom over the last 14 years since the national team was formed in 2005.
“For girls today to see there are clubs, there are leagues, there are national teams, (that) there’s older players that have already made history for Jordan, it’s very important to know that there is a future for football here in Jordan.
“After hosting the U17 World Cup, after hosting the Asian Cup, a lot of parents are now encouraging their girls to play football. They see there’s a future.”
Despite being 31, al-Naber still dreams of playing at the World Cup, and while that may be a bridge too far at the moment, they are at least on the right path to achieving that goal in the future.
For Khan, and the dozens like her around the world experiencing the same prejudice, abuse and mismanagement, watching the action on TV remains as close they will come to experiencing the thrill of a World Cup. She knows Pakistan won’t be appearing at the World Cup any time soon. Her dream is much more modest.
“We just want a chance to play.”
It doesn’t seem like much to ask, but the fact it’s being asked at all shows that, despite all the advancements made, despite the relative glitz and glamour of this year’s World Cup, there is still much more work to be done.