The Women’s Game in Africa: ‘Zanzibar Soccer Queens’ and Other Tales

Women Fighters FC from

An oft repeated trope of Africa is barefoot children playing joyously with a handmade soccer ball on colorful patches of dirt.  There is, however, a reason the children in that image are almost always boys: in many parts of Africa girls don’t play much football.  Why not?

It’s not exactly the case that girls and women in Africa don’t play sports.  In many places it’s just that they only play particular types of sports.  In fact, at the start of my first experience in Africa as a Peace Corps education trainee in Malawi, my group of mostly recent college graduate Americans was consistently confused during our visits to schools where we found girls playing what looked like basketball on what seemed to be poor excuses for hoops.  It turned out, however, that the consistent lack of backboards was not a function of poverty—it was a function of British Empire.

Malawi’s formal school system mostly derived from British colonialism, including the idea that boys should play soccer while girls should play netball (a game most of us Americans had never heard of, but would learn much about).  Over time that gender-typing of sports had become reified—to the point that many a local argued reserving soccer for boys was part of ‘traditional African culture.’  Which, in hindsight, only serves to highlight just how tenuous ‘traditional’ prohibitions are in the world of ‘modern’ sport.

Later, during my own work in Malawi, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to run some training programs for school soccer coaches with a relatively progressive Malawian colleague and the sponsorship of an aid agency that insisted on including girls and women in our programs.  This led to some consternation amongst the teachers and schools we worked with, particularly in rural areas, but they always managed to find more than a few women interested in coaching football—despite having rarely had the chance to play the game themselves.  In fact, one of my favorite workshops included a strong, charismatic, and rotund Malawian nun who led her demonstration practice session in full religious dress—habit and all.

It always felt like an accomplishment to show communities that women could and should be involved with the game, but I was never sure how much difference we actually made.  And my uncertainty was reinforced several years later when I went to a different part of Africa (Angola) for my dissertation research.  The very first day I drove into the refugee camp where I did my work, I came upon a playful, dusty schoolyard scene familiar to anywhere in Africa with one striking difference: the scrum of a football match at the center of everything included both boys and girls playing together—something I had almost never seen in two years working at Malawian schools.

Maybe Angola was different?  Maybe things had changed in the years since my Malawi stint?  Whatever the case, I was impressed.  But it didn’t last.

A few weeks later the school went on a term break, and suddenly the co-ed games disappeared.  It was back to boys playing football, and girls playing other things (in the community where I worked in Angola, instead of netball, the most common female-typed activity was an agility game called garrafinha).  When I asked people about the contrast between the school yard and the back yard, they were matter-of-fact: ‘We know the school is run by outsiders [since the camp was administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees, the school had been organized by donor groups], and they like boys and girls to do everything the same.  So during school time girls play football.  But for us, really, football is for boys—so when school is out, the girls do their own thing.’  In other words, they would play along with the idea that soccer should be for everyone—but they didn’t really buy it.

Documenting the women’s game and its obstacles

These experiences came back to me recently when I finally had a chance to see the documentary film Zanzibar Soccer Queens.  The movie, made by Cameroon-born and Wales-based filmmaker Florence Ayisi, came out in 2007 but has not been in wide circulation.  It is, however, well worth tracking down as a powerful visual document of how the game negotiates between people and society (I saw it at a recent academic conference on sports in Africa, but it does now seem to be available in some libraries).

Clocking in at a quick 55 minutes, the film tells the story of ‘Women Fighters FC’ on Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania.  The name ‘Women Fighters’ is entirely intentional—the women are very conscious of having to fight against not only the familiar argument that football is a men’s game, but also Zanzibar’s predominantly Muslim population and strictures.  Though not a glossy big-budget film, the documentary offers a rich analysis from local perspectives on the issue at hand—the Women Fighters talk about how much the game means to them as a chance to express themselves and their strengths, while the critics (including a female university student and a male teacher) argue that Islam prohibits the display of the body and discourages the female assertiveness inherent to soccer.

The Women Fighters make a much more persuasive case.  Several of the players become visibly emotional when explaining what it is like to see one’s name on the back of a real jersey for the first time, or when describing their sadness at being forced to quit the game by a new husband.  And watching film of their exuberance during games against men (whom they beat) on slippery village fields, or against women (whom they beat) in bumpy city parks, it is hard not to feel that the game is good.  The critics, on the other hand, articulate an argument that mostly serves to highlight its own limits—their concern that showing a bit of knee will throw the whole community into disarray seems more about male fantasies than ‘African culture.’

That does not, however, mean the ‘culture’ argument against women’s football in Africa can be entirely dismissed.  Even if it is untenable intellectually, it matters pragmatically—one of the classic challenges for many development workers is to reconcile conflicting ideas about women’s rights with a respect for local (often patriarchal) value systems.  Fortunately, in this case there is some good evidence that the idea of ‘African culture’ prohibiting women’s soccer is a red herring.

Cal Berkeley scholar Martha Saavedra, for example, wrote case studies of ‘football feminine’ in Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa finding that the boundaries of who can play and who can’t is always more about power than it is about ‘indigenous culture.’  In Senegal, for example, women’s basketball is among the most popular sports—third only to men’s soccer and wrestling in Dakar.  And the Senegalese whom Saavedra talked to claim that is partially because basketball is a more graceful, feminine sport than the ‘brute’ game of soccer.  Of course, the fact that argument is nearly a complete inversion of how the games are perceived in other cultures (including in the United States) demonstrates clearly that it is less about the sport and more about protecting territory.

But even beyond the ‘traditional culture’ argument, there are a constellation of other challenges to the women’s game in Africa—so much so that when Saavedra went on her research trip to Senegal in 1998-1999 to study women’s football, she never actually got to see a women’s match.  They simply weren’t playing.  Some of the obstacles are relatively obvious: Saavedra points out that men are usually well-embedded in the power structures and national federations that oversee the game, that women in many African communities have less leisure time than men, that there are many other social issues that may necessarily be priorities for African women’s activists more than sports equity (eg, violence against women, HIV, limited access to education, malnutrition).

Other obstacles are more subtle.  Saavedra points out, for example, that female beauty norms in many parts of Africa don’t jibe with the athleticism required of a footballer: “Unlike discussions in the West, a consideration of muscles, femininity and sexuality in Senegal is not (yet) an issue about suspected lesbianism, but about fertility and socio-economic status.  Competing feminitities reflect this: the rural, muscled, toiling agrarian woman versus the more privileged, urban woman who need not labour physically.  In the urban milieu where sport is most common, there exist two idealized femininities that are decidedly non-muscular: the disquette (young, slim, Western-oriented) and the drianke (large, soft, round and economically established).”  [Sadly, the issue of ‘suspected lesbianism’ reared its ugly head last year in South African women’s soccer with the tragic murder of national team player Eudy Simelane.]

I learned of another example of a subtle obstacle to the women’s game in many parts of Africa through a discussion during a visit to Uganda a few years ago with a Brit working on well-established sports and development project.  He was eager to include girls and women in the program, but noted that one of the common challenges to involving girls and women was female hygiene: female players didn’t have access to the types of sanitary napkins or tampons necessary to play soccer all through the month.  So many interested female players simply gave up quietly, embarrassed.  The sports and development program was working on locally available fixes, but it was the kind of challenge that had quite frankly never before crossed my mind.

The future?

Nigeria vs the US in the 2007 Women's World Cup

Despite the many obstacles, things are changing.  The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has only hosted a full continental championship tournament since 1998 (there were competitions in 1991 and 1995—but they were played on a home and away basis, and had no central host).  The men’s championship, in contrast, has been going since 1957.  In addition, the first decade of the African women’s championship was dominated by Nigeria alone—but in 2008’s most recent tournament final South Africa lost to host Equatorial Guinea (which is an interesting story in its own right, but a bit much to address here).  Nigeria lost in the semi-finals—hopefully a sign of increasing parity rather than Nigeria’s decline (though it is interesting to note that WUSA employed several strong Nigerian players in its glory days, while WPS does not—as far as I know—have a single African player on an active roster).

There is also some cause for hope at a grass-roots level.  Global attention to women’s football along with the proliferation of sports and development programs means African communities are increasingly likely to recognize that the game has no inherent gender.  In this vein, scholars such as Peter Alegi argue that one of the potentially positive effects of the ‘privatization’ of football in Africa is increased opportunities for girls and women to play (as I noted in my review of African Soccerscapes).  He cites as one prominent example the Mathare Youth Sports Association, an NGO in Nairobi that has provided opportunities for thousands of girls to play in a context of urban poverty.

Even beyond soccer, much of contemporary development work has come to recognize that empowering women is one of the most powerful routes to positive social change.  Which all means that if the women’s game is to ever thrive in Africa it will depend on greatly on women such as Tanzanian Nassra Juma Mohammed—who in my viewing was the heroine of Zanzibar Soccer Queens.  Nassra was a former badminton player who had a chance to be educated and develop a civil service career.  Inspired by the visit of a Swedish women’s soccer team to Zanzibar in 1988, she created Women Fighters FC and has used her status, resources, and ingenuity to both train the team and make it sustainable (in the movie we see Nassra organize for the team to open a small provision store to help fund its endeavors).

So while outsiders and outside images can help, nothing will do more for the game in Africa than strong women empowered to work in their own communities in their own ways.  This idea was driven home powerfully by the final scene of Zanzibar Soccer Queens—a simple shot panning slowly across the faces of Women Fighters FC as they line up in their crisp white uniforms for a game.  It is a shot familiar to any soccer fan anywhere, the pre-game line up, but amidst the usual mix of intensity and anxiety these faces also vividly convey something more inspiring: potential.

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