Khartoum (AFP) – Sudan’s women’s football team is yet to win a match, but members say they have scored a victory by overcoming challenges including discrimination and a coup to play the game.
“The girls are still taking their very first steps in international football,” said coach Salma al-Majidi, training the team that was formed just last year.
A few years ago, the prospect of a Sudanese women’s national team was inconceivable, given the strict policing of social mores under the hardline Islamist regime of deposed autocrat Omar al-Bashir.
But within months of his ouster in 2019, and on the back of mass protests against his rule, Sudan launched its first women’s football tournament.
In 2021, Sudan’s first women’s national team was born.
The team has since taken part in the Arab Women’s Cup 2021, playing against Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon.
It also played against Algeria, but it has yet to claim any victories, including in its latest two games against South Sudan.
“They have much less experience than the other teams,” Majidi told AFP after a friendly with neighbouring South Sudan in February, which Sudan lost 6-0. “But their performance is getting better.”
In a second friendly against South Sudan later last month, Sudan lost again, 3-0.
– ‘Kicked out of fields’ –
Majidi blamed the team’s loss in the latest matches in part on the disruption of practice due to anti-coup demonstrations.
Mass protests have regularly rocked the country, claiming at least 85 lives since a military coup in October led by army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Among other things, the coup resulted in one of their matches with Algeria being cancelled after it was set to take place on October 26 — the day after the military power-grab.
“We could not prepare properly,” said Majidi. “And it has recently become hard to practise on a regular basis.”
Majidi has faced a tough challenge before. She was also the first Arab woman to coach a men’s football team, including several of Sudan’s second league men’s clubs.
Team captain Fatma Gadal was among the women who resisted state-sanctioned gender discrimination during Bashir’s three-decade rule.
For years, she and others had to navigate myriad obstacles to play the game, snatching opportunities to practise when they could, on pitches out of sight of public view.
While under Bashir there was no legal ban on women’s football, a conservative society coupled with the Islamist leanings of the government left it in the shadows.
Gadal said they had to “often look for secluded areas” to train, as many viewed football as a “masculine sport”.
“People were generally against it, and we were often kicked out of fields when we were seen playing,” Gadal said.
Women were at the forefront of mass protests against Bashir, voicing their pent up anger against decades of inequality and restrictive policies that severely diminished their role in society.
Along with Bashir’s rule, the uprising eventually did away with public order laws that imposed stiff restrictions on women’s actions and dress in public, sparking hopes for a more liberal Sudan.
– Hard-won liberties –
But after the October coup, which derailed a transition that had been painstakingly negotiated between military and civilian leaders, many fear the hard-won liberties gained since Bashir’s ouster will be rolled back.
“We just don’t want military rule,” said Gadal, warning that this would amount to “the same challenges as under Bashir”.
Burhan — who chairs Sudan’s post-coup ruling council — has vowed that the military will not run in the upcoming elections planned for mid-2023.
“I remain committed that if a national consensus is reached or elections are held, the military institution and I will stay out of politics,” he said in a recent TV interview.
Majidi believes that women’s football is here to stay, irrespective of whatever government comes next.
“We want to better our performance in the upcoming matches,” Majidi said. “People in Sudan have become more accepting of women’s football.”
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