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Girls & Women

Muslim Women Launch First-Ever Female Soccer Team in Zanzibar


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Women who have the desire to play male-dominated sports, such as soccer, have traditionally been denied in Zanzibar. Gender equality is one of the UN’s Global Goals, and protecting women from discrimination is essential to empower girls and women everywhere. You can join us by taking action for gender equality here.

A group of Muslim women are bucking discriminatory social norms for love of "the beautiful game."

In Zanzibar, where women have been traditionally shamed and forbidden from playing soccer, a team of talented female athletes is breaking new ground with every match, reports The New York Times.

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“I’ve never been attacked physically,” Riziki Abdallah, 23, told the Times in an interview, describing the high stakes at play. “But they tell me and my family that they are not happy, and that I should not be playing soccer.”

Criticisms of female players throughout the predominantly Muslim island range from “bad behavior” to “lack of discipline” to rumors of homosexuality.

With same-sex sexual conduct illegal in Zanzibar, and a specific law against lesbianism carrying a prison sentence of five years, this means Zanzibari women are truly risking their lives to pursue the sport.

In order to preserve the teams that have worked so hard to exist, some coaches have taken a hard stance of banning players they suspect of being gay, noted the Times.

Hassan Mwinyi, an assistant coach, told the paper that he removed a player last year from his team because, “We just knew” she was a lesbian.

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It is a fight that officially began two decades ago, when Nassra Juma Mohammed, a former Zanzibari player on the Tanzanian national team — and a World Cup commentator in Zanzibar this year— attempted to start a women’s soccer league in Zanzibar.

That first team, established in 1988, was called Women Fighters and faced many battles on and off the field, with men and religious leaders often deriding the players, according to the report.

Then, in 2007, a documentary called Zanzibar Soccer Queens by Cameroon-born, Wales-based helmer Florence Ayisi about the difficulty Mohammed and other like-minded women faced in starting the team made the rounds in international film festivals, bringing validation and much positive media attention to the cause, Variety reported at the time.

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Since then, six teams have been formed to create the women’s club soccer league in Zanzibar, including clubs such as the Jumbi Woman Fighter and the Green Queens. And more films about the players have followed, including “New Generation Queens,” according to a post on Duke University’s Soccer Politics blog.

Still, there are many battles yet to be won. The women’s national team lacks government support and funding, and most players learn how to play in streets after class, as soccer is prevented from physical education curricula.

“I would be the happiest man if the government introduced soccer in schools for girls,” Khalid Khamis Suleiman, a coach of one of the ladies teams, told the Times.