Solidarity as self-defense

Last night in Barcelona women, lesbians and trans* people marched together in solidarity exclaiming “la nit es nostra (the night is ours)”, in protest against gender violences and patriarchy. In the recent few years that I have attended this march, this was the largest I have seen. Friends of mine from Barcelona agreed that this year we saw so many more people, compañeras, particularly the young, come out and march side by side. At one point along the way, as we walked together and chanted “si en toquen a una, ens toquen a totes (if they touch one of us, they touch all of us)” someone threw a bucket of water down from high up in one of the apartment buildings we passed, hitting a small group of us. The whole section of the march stopped and turned to face the building, continued chanting and daring the perpetrator to show their face. As our cry of solidarity grew louder, looking around at all of the faces before we marched on, it struck me that we were yelling for each other against an incident that was no different from what happens everyday. Everyday we face some sort of disrespect or violence, whether it is simply for being a woman, lesbian, transperson, minority or for proudly calling ourselves Feminists.  Acts that show our feminism seem to incite even more violence and discomfort from the world we live in, the men and the privileged who are threatened by our chants.   I myself have realized that I have normalized when these things happen, and there are so many instances and moments when I do not show my own resistence. We tend to internalize our resistence, and I think many of us begin to think it is normal to turn away when someone calls us a “puta (bitch)”, when a stranger in the park sits down next to us to comment on our appearance and we move to another bench, or when our work is undervalued or our voices are ignored.

I think that this march and all the marches that will happen today are a form of self-defense. It is the self-defense of group solidarity and coming together to speak out. In addition to defending ourselves and fighting as a group I also think that we all need more ways of defending ourselves individually. This year I enrolled in my first self-defense course. It is hard to explain how at the age of 32 I have not yet taken a self-defense course, as it seems so essential and logical for all women. The course does not just teach techniques to physically defend myself against aggressions, but has been an exercise in how to recognize a violent situation and how to psychologically and verbally protect myself and act. It has been an eye-opening experience to realize how deeply I have internalized to not yell out or speak up when I feel uncomfortable, or that I should move away or give ground when someone is inappropriately speaking to me or encroaching on my personal space. This is what I reflected on last night in the march. As an athlete who plays soccer, it is interesting to me that physically defending myself and standing up for myself when playing against boys and men who are much bigger and more aggressive, has come naturally when I am on the pitch since I was very young. Somehow this has not translated into my everyday life, and I have tolerated too many instances when I should have resisted and defended myself and my space. I have been thinking, why do I so vehemently fight back when playing soccer with men who dominate the game, and then in my everyday life let the same forms of dominance happen without defending myself?

Through the self-defense course, and practicing with the other women in the course I have felt empowered by watching myself and them gain confidence in holding our ground and addressing aggressive situations with the knowledge of how to handle the situation. When I close my eyes and think of the last time I was touched or spoken to in a way I did not like in public, I now feel that I know how I want to react, I think of the faces of the friends around me in the march last night and I feel I can react the way I want to.

The solidarity of walking hand in hand in the march with friends who we know share our daily experiences, shouting together the slogans and chants that we often don’t yell at misogynist bosses or when we are harassed on the subway, or in a bar, is our our collective self-defense. For me, it was a reminder that we need spaces to feel such solidarity with each other, to recognize the shared experience of the violence and disrespect we face daily and to continue to build our strength to fight back.

SI EN TOQUEN A UNA, ENS TOQUEN A TOTES

 

Call me un-American

Eight years ago I woke up in Colorado, breathing in the satisfaction that came with having worked on a campaign that represented hope and change. This morning the breathing isn’t coming so easily, nor will it. I fear that I fell into the laziness and naïveté of an experienced victor who misjudges not only their opponent, but also their teammates. One of the most basic principles of being on a team (of being a person, really) is to listen to and understand others, and from there to fight for a common goal. I failed this year, as I feel many of us did, because I skipped the step of trying to understand and just assumed that everyone else saw the crazy zealot that I saw.   I voted, I did my part, I shamefully didn’t think to fight in any other way.

When you live outside of your home country you automatically become a cultural interpreter who explains all things American, which is not always easy. Today is something I cannot explain. Perhaps I have been gone too long and have lost touch with what the majority of Americans want and believe? Perhaps I never really knew, coming from a place in the United States that is known for liberal leanings. I am embarrassed, not only for my country, but for myself. For so long I have blindly believed that if we towed a party line and voted for the “better” candidate, then everything would be ok. Change would eventually happen in its way. How naïve. And now, I ask myself, how do I explain all of this to people here, who come from a not so far off history of fascist repression? How do I explain it to friends who have taught me to fight on the ground, to fight for a system and ideals that don’t have precedence and that put people first? How do I admit to them that while they are daily organizing and fighting in the streets for alternative and radical solutions that are far outside of the lines drawn by our governments and current political leaders, I was simply sending in my vote? I think that what is needed now is not a deep analysis of what happened and self-pity, but an opening of spaces and conversations that lead to action in our communities, actions that promote politics that respect a person no matter their color, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality, age, class or any other aspect to their identity.

On this dark morning, I have heard the words “president for all Americans”, “our country” and all other sorts of empty patriotic niceties that it seems so many of my countrymen in the United States have wanted to hear. I find myself asking, who are these Americans he speaks of? Have I been so far away for so long that I do not even recognize the people who feel that his words represent them? I want to tell him who I am and what I believe in, and let’s see if that fits in with the Americans that he plans to represent:

I believe that freedom means not restricting lives, but making them better, and I believe that this cannot happen if any person is ignored or left out. I am a woman who has been able to and believes in loving deeply who I want to – transperson, woman, man. I consider the freedom to choose to be a right not even worth discussing, and I consider women to be the only people who should ever have any say about their bodies. I believe in free health care and free education, in a system that prioritizes and supports both. I take pleasure from diversity, to be with people who are different from me and from whom I can learn and we can create together. I enjoy speaking in another language, whether it be a social, verbal or political language. I believe that listening and respecting another person in spite of difference is the only way to live our lives. I believe in fighting against a broken American political system and the dominant capitalist politics that have led us to this day, and will continue to lead us astray. Not one word from your mouth has made me feel that you understand what kind of American I am, so please, go ahead and call me un-American. I would rather be a person than your type of American. And as I have learned from my compañeras, I will not fight within your lines or within your rules, I will join those who have been fighting this battle in the margins all along and I will encourage as many others as I can to join.

Political protest and sport and development Dans La Ville

Following the May Day protests around Europe this year, I want to talk about my worry with the growing (or perhaps simply becoming more visible) xenophobia, racism and discrimination of a system that needs to be challenged, protested and changed. The fight by activists to protect workers and non-wealthy classes is particularly important and I think of equal importance is the fight for a different way of existing together, for inclusion and community. What I mean by community is not defined by our social status or postal code, but by how we treat the people around us no matter who they are or where they come from. For months now I have been concerned with the growing divisions and inequalities perpetuated by our governments and I have been angered by the lack of engagement from the sports and development sector to change or challenge this system. I am concerned that we are simply carrying out activities for the disadvantaged across the world without the political consciousness to understand or want to change the systems that create inequalities and add to the numbers of disadvantaged. The political battle is an extremely important one, and we have an opportunity to support it by actually working for social change through sport.

I want to be clear that when I say social change I am not talking about the sustainable development goals. In sport and development we are saturated with projects, ideas and strategies that aim to achieve these specific development goals. The targets of these development goals are important, but I think that social change means more than improved numbers in school enrollment, and more aid money for clean water although both of course are important. But, I think true social change means challenging the way our society perpetuates inequality and finding ways to fight against that inequality. The first step is to understand the inequalities in the communities in which we live, and the violence and discrimination inherent in our government systems that perpetuate inequality, racism, misogyny, homo and transphobia, and many other ills.

Sport and development is often apolitical, but I see an opportunity to support the political protests across Europe and the social change they stand for. We have to  examine who we are working with, who is excluded, and who is affected most by the violence of the system. This is where we need to start. This is not an easy task, because the contexts in which we work can be so limiting, due to funding and public opinion. To succeed creativity and tenacity are essential. I do not think it is necessary for sport and development organizations to make an official political statement, but am suggesting that through creative and directed programs they can contribute to change more effectively.

A few weeks ago I was inspired by an example of creativity in sport and development from and organization in France, a context that is by no means simple at the moment. In France, if you are black or brown, or if you have a name that is Muslim, it is harder to get a job, period. And this problem by no means isolated to France. In 2010 the French Government passed a law, which banned the veil for women working in the public sector, and in turn has made employment for women who wear the veil in France a much greater challenge. I will not use this space to enter into the many feminist and anti-racist arguments against this law, but am using it simply as is an example of the greater barrier faced by Muslim youth in entering an already competitive job market. These youth represent a part of society that faces incredible barriers in accessing and taking on opportunities that would promote changes in their social situation by simply providing the same opportunities available to other youth in France.

A few weeks ago I went to play football with some of these French youth while visiting as organization called Sport Dans La Ville in Lyon. Sport Dans La Ville was started in 1998 with the mission of providing spaces to play sport for youth in neighborhoods, which did not necessarily offer this opportunity. Needless to say, these are mostly Muslim youth of North African decent who live in the poorer neighborhoods. When I stepped onto the football pitch to play with a group of these young men, I will admit that I was at first intimidated and my own internalized prejudices made me shy away from them, worried they would treat me aggressively. In turn, they were not exactly thrilled about a woman and an outsider joining their training. My own personal battle to challenge gender stereotypes on the football pitch was not nearly as important as overcoming of my own prejudices. Those prejudices were certainly overcome as I shook hands with these youth after the game and responded with a smile as two of them told me, “c’etait une plaisir jouer avec vous.”

In the environment that Sport Dans La Ville has created, I was able to come in contact with and play with these youth who otherwise I might never have met. This initial step of bridging a gap across culture, community, race, religion, and gender is something that I see as essential for France, and for ALL European countries at this pivotal moment in history. But, what impressed me even more about Sport Dans La Ville was their program called Job Dans La Ville, which is aimed at helping these very same youth prepare for and obtain jobs. For 18 years Sport Dan La Ville has been working with the youth in the worst neighborhoods in Lyon, Paris and Grenoble and often with the same youth over a period of years. At some point they realized that they were in a position to do more for the youth than simply provide them with sports and safe spaces to play and they asked them what they needed. This was the basis of the Job Dans La Ville program, which every year provides youth from Sports Dans La Ville with coaching, support and mentoring opportunities to increase their skills and knowledge and help them get a job. This is not your run of the mill employability program, because the youth engaged in Job Dans La Ville stay in the program UNTIL they get a job, in some cases this can be years. Job Dans La Ville is partnered with local businesses and professionals in Lyon who agree to mentor the youth, often working with youth from backgrounds and neighborhoods that they have never come in contact with.

When talking with the Director of Job Dans la Ville about the sustainability of the program and she jokingly mentioned how difficult their job would become if the French government should go far right, I was reminded of what a difficult context in which this program is working. Not only are they dealing with the personal prejudices that might exist and create barriers for the youth, but they are dealing with a discriminatory system that is actively changing to make it even harder for these youth to get a job. For me, this is an incredible example of a program reacting to a dire situation in the community and society and doing something that has potential to really contribute to social change. It would have been easy for them to work in the less isolated neighborhoods across these French cities, or with youth who don’t face as many barriers to changing their situation, or it would have been easy for them to set up an employability program that gives the youth a few trainings and then sends them on their way. But, this is not what Sport Dans La Ville has done. They are invested in seeing the youth who engage in their program through until they get the job that they want. They are invested for the long run. And the most exciting thing is that Sport Dans La Ville, through the global streetfootballworld network, is beginning to connect with other programs and organizations from around Europe to share their ideas and look for ways to work together. For me, this is an example of creativity and drive to find a way to really change the lives of the youth in their program, to challenge the rules and barriers they face in France. It is a way of supporting the political protests, albeit indirectly. And the sharing of their ideas is one of the ways to contribute to greater social change that will not happen overnight, or in isolation, but could happen through collaboration and tenacity – and also well beyond sport and development.

Watching Bosnia i Herzegovina vs. England: Reflections and finding inspiration

As the years become busier and pass more rapidly I find myself taking less and less time to reflect on the work that I do and what has led me to working with sport and development programs around the world. This blog has suffered from less time spent on reflection in 2015, and as the year comes to a close I think it is important to resume my old habit of reflecting.   I recently had an experience that in fact forced me not only into recollection, but into reflection about where I started this work and why I still push so hard to work with sports, and specifically projects for girls and women.

This past November, the Bosnia i Herzegovina Women’s National soccer team played a UEFA Euro Cup qualifying match against the England Women’s National team in Bristol, UK. I was particularly excited to attend this match, and dragged some of my family members along as Bosnia supporters. It was an extremely stormy and windy evening in Bristol, less than optimal conditions to play a late afternoon match, let alone watch one from the stands. But, due mostly to the growing prowess and popularity of the England team, we entered the stadium to find more than 13,000 supporters in attendance. As I was open-mouthed surveying such a substantial crowd, my eye caught on one of the defenders for the Bosnia team running across the field. A small but incredibly feisty defender, half the size of the English player she was challenging for the ball, Nikolina Dijaković is immediately recognizable and looks almost the same as when I first met her on a dingy field on the outskirts of Sarajevo in 2002.

Before I ever knew there was a term “Sport for Development” or that I would eventually come to work in this sector, I loved soccer and wanted to share it with others in any way that I could. At seventeen years old, and with experience coaching only in the US, a teammate and I travelled to Bosnia i Herzegovina to work with an NGO called Let’s Be Active Sarajevo to organize and coach their first summer soccer camp for girls. We did not have many specific goals for the camp, aside from simply bringing together girls of different ethnic backgrounds in Bosnia in a safe space to play soccer. At the time, a league for women players was just beginning and a few teams had been established across the country. Nikolina was twelve years old and one of the attendees of this summer camp. I remember watching the pride on her face as she and the other girls stepped onto the field day after day, with a group of local boys watching from the side and asking when they could have the field back. I remember the friendships they made with each other, girls from families of a different religion or ethnic background who may never have met in another circumstance. And I remember their stories, and the friendships we created with them – in spite of a great language barrier and many differences between us. As happens in the inaugural year of most projects, we learned more from the girls who attended the camp than we ever could have planned. The experience shaped the subsequent years of the project and began to shape the direction of my career.

I returned to Bosnia i Herzegovina for several summers following and the project grew in size and moved to a town in the Republic of Srpska, in an effort to include girls from that region of the country. In 2008 I returned to Bosnia to visit some of the girls. They brought me along to a women’s soccer match between two of the best women’s soccer clubs in the country, for whom some of them played and where I was one of only a dozen spectators. At the time, they were extremely excited about the new opportunity to travel and to play against teams from other countries in UEFA matches across Europe.

Fast forward to November 2015, watching these girls play in front of over 13,000 people against a team that is one of the top four in the world. This is the moment of reflection I needed, the moment that I thought “this is why I want to continue to work with sports for development projects for girls and women.” Not only was this a huge step for women’s soccer in Bosnia, but it also demonstrates the growing support for women’s soccer in England that will hopefully set a precedent for other countries to follow. After the match the Bosnian players were the first to admit that it was not a good soccer match. In fact, it was a pretty ugly match and they explained that the Bosnian team completely lacked an attack and focused solely on defense. This was their strategy, knowing they were outclassed and are years away from being able to compete with the English women. They did all they could to keep the English women to a 1-0 win. What was more important than the result, and what truly thrilled my Bosnian friends, was playing in front of such an enormous crowd and playing against players of such a high standard. They explained to me that when they play at home in Bosnia, they are lucky to have 200 spectators attend a match, so playing in the near full stadium in Bristol fills them with hope for the future in Bosnia.

The experience of attending this match and talking to the Bosnian team and coach afterward reminded me of the incredible personal development of these young women. For example, Azra, another of the players who attended our camp years ago, plays for the national team and the professional club in Sarajevo (SFK 2000), and now works full-time for the club. She explained that little by little they are building support in Sarajevo and that they continue to develop the club and work with young girls. Often the younger girls who join the Sarajevo youth teams come from difficult situations at home and the older players and club members do everything possible to support these girls. The Bosnian players’ commitment to each other and to furthering opportunities for girls and women to play in their country is truly admirable. Hearing them talk about how incredible this experience in Bristol was, how far they have come and how far they still have to go inspires me. I may not fully understand the context they come from, but I understand the positives that playing soccer can give young women because the opportunities I had gave me the skills and experiences that have shaped my life. Every girl should have that opportunity, in Bosnia and elsewhere. If my work to support projects that create spaces for girls to play and develop as people helps the efforts of these young women in Bosnia in even the most minute way, then it is worth doing.

Bosnia match 3 Bosnia match 2 AC

The Struggle for Democracy, and why Burkina Faso should be a front page headline

(in collaboration with Colin Carney)

On any given day, I can read the news, open social media, or catch a glimpse of a headline that angers and worries me about the state of the world. Often these are places I have never been and people I have never met. But today it is Burkina Faso, a place I have been and friends I care deeply about. Burkina Faso is not a big country, nor will it ever be a global power or be featured in front page headlines, but it is a place with a history of resistance and a people who continue to struggle courageously for their right to democracy.

In October 2014, Burkinabés united in a pro-democracy movement to push ex-President Blaise Campaore from power. It was a momentous occurrence that promised to bury Campaore’s 27-year strongman legacy and usher in an unprecedented era of democracy and pluralism. But now, less than a year later, that democratic promise is in jeopardy following a coup against the transitional government last week by a special military unit called the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) led by General Diendéré, that remains loyal to Campaore.

This coup has the people of Burkina Faso outraged and many have taken to the streets of Ouagadougou in protest against the RSP and other supporters of ex-President Campaore. International mediation is stalling. The peace plan proposed by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has been rejected by the RSP who refused to lay down their arms, and only last night was a new peace plan proposed. The RSP claims it awaits the meeting of the African Union in Abuja, Nigeria before it relinquishes its hold on Ouagadougou. As the RSP plays politics, the peace of the capitol is in the balance. Yesterday, the Burkina Faso military forces arrived in Ouagadougou to challenge the RSP and the ongoing standoff has created an uneasy feeling that bloodshed is imminent**.

Among the RSP’s chief demands is that supporters of ex-President Campaore be allowed to participate in the democratic elections. Free democratic elections must mean freedom from Campaore’s authoritarian shadow. Allowing his cronies a role in the democratic transition is untenable. Burkina Faso’s fledgling democratic institutions would surely not survive it, nor is it what the people have demanded and struggled for.

Recent history has demonstrated what some are calling a recession in democracy[1] across the globe and Burkina Faso may be the most recent example of an observable trend. Like so many of the other failures of democracy in the past years, Burkina Faso is barely making news. Is the failure of democracy only important international news when it creates death and destruction? Is that when we start paying attention? These military coups and power grabs (whether they turn into civil war or not) that I hear so many people write-off by saying, “oh it’s Africa, that just happens” have a real impact on lives even before we start seeing photos of bodies in newspapers. I do not mean to be dramatic, or to say that Burkina Faso is going to break into civil war, but the potential of it is real. Even when people are dying, news of it tends to not make more than a ripple in the international press if it happens to be in a small and somewhat unknown country. Take a similar example of the claim of “democracy” by President Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi this past April, who tried to illegally extend his rule to a third term and when the coup to oust him failed, he purged the government of any opposition. This so-called “democracy” led to the displacement of thousands of people and a humanitarian emergency[2]. My rage at the people I meet in cafés and parties here in Europe who shrug and say “that happens in Africa” comes not only from their refusal to see the human cost of a Nkurunziza’s ‘false democracy’, but also at their blindness at the connection that exists between these fights for democracy and the resulting crises that do enter their lives and consciousness. These people do a disservice to the courage of the everyday Burkinabés who have risked their well-being to attain a voice in governance as well as the legacies of pro-democracy movements over the last 200 years, including some of the European countries they call home.

It is not such a stretch to look at the thousands of refugees forced out of Syria by the ongoing conflict and to recognise that this too can be viewed as a failure to obtain a democracy, or an altogether lack of it. I think of the protests and movements of people across Europe demanding that the European governments do more for refugees. I think of the people walking next to me in one of those marches wearing a t-shirt of Aylan Kurdi and I wonder about the kids of Burundi and Burkina Faso. Do we have to wait for one of them to die in order to pay attention to the struggle for democracy in Burkina Faso? Or to demand democracy that does not lead to a violent conflict and a dictatorial megalomaniac leader? Syria is engulfed in 4 years of bloody civil war, where the human costs have been blatantly clear. The situation in Burkina Faso is clearly not the equivalent of that in Syria, but the point is to draw attention to the moment Burkina Faso is in, and the potential loss of a democracy struggled for, as well as the affects of the lives of the kids (and people) who live there.

The work I have done for years is with these kids, whether in Burkina Faso, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, or elsewhere.   Everywhere that I work I have seen the importance for kids to have a space to play and grow. In Burkina Faso we work with kids from some of the most destitute areas of the country who work full-time and barely have time or money for school, house chores or meals. In spite of this, they always come to play, and when asked why, they say that it is the one hour a day that they feel freedom to enjoy. For me, this sense of freedom is essential and a space to play is as important as the other necessities of these kids. What drives my anger is that the current power play in Burkina Faso is putting in jeopardy this freedom. I cannot separate what a corrupt military general like Diendéré, is doing to his country from those kids and the cost to them. Today, I think of the kids that I play with in Burkina Faso, stuck indoors with no school, no place to play, no freedom. And then I think of the kids that we keep seeing in the international headlines, spilling over the borders of Europe away from the Syrian conflict, who are deprived of school, food, security, safety and also of play. The refugees who stand on Europe’s doorstep are forced into the European consciousness, whereas Burkina Faso is so far away it is easily ignored. It may seem that play is a silly thing to focus on when the geo-political climate of this world means that so many people are starving, without homes and sick, but along with their right to live, they have a right to freedom and play. By disrupting life, by disrupting what could be a new democracy for a country that so bravely demanded it in October 2014, General Diendéré is denying every child a space to play, and so much more. How far will a military leader like Diendéré let that go? How much suffering to justify a demand of power? My thoughts are with the people of Burkina, the people of any revolution who demand better, who demand their rights, their democracy and their freedom play and live. Let us stand with the people of Burkina, let us stand with the people displaced by conflicts around the world. Let us pay attention to these struggles everywhere, because one day it may be us fighting for our right to democracy.

**Earlier this morning it was reported that transitional President Michel Kafando was reinstated and General Diendéré has agreed to the transfer of power.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/09/13/opinion/larry-diamond-democracy-in-recession-timeline.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/burundi-roiled-by-apparent-coup-detat-pierre-nkurunziza/

When international football becomes ANTI-WOMAN

With the fast approaching 2015 Women’s World Cup, a spotlight is going to be thrown on women’s football worldwide (albeit, not as large a spotlight as it deserves), and international attention on the women’s game can mean a lot for gender equality in sport. BUT, some of the international gatekeepers and patriarchs of football, namely FIFA, are doing everything possible to undermine the progress women have made in the sport, and to violate their rights and now their bodies.

For those who are not football fans it may not seem important what FIFA, the international governing body of football, gets up to. But you should pay attention. Because international professional football is a global industry, with a lot of wealth, power and social impact and FIFA has been in the process of demonstrating how truly anti-woman this world of football can be. The scariest part is that they do not come right out and say: “We believe women are second-class players. We also believe women’s rights do not need to be respected.” They are thinly veiling their misogyny with the same old tricks.

For example, few weeks ago, in line with their claim to be promoting women in football, FIFA released a youtube campaign called “No Barriers” in which women players are shown breaking down a metaphorical wall. This campaign represents the way that FIFA wants to present themselves as supporting women’s football, but is in fact covering up actions taken against women. On the heels of this campaign, two days ago FIFA issued a “declaration of agreement” which requires every country that will compete in the World Cup to sign onto FIFA’s existing gender verification regulation created in 2011, that is almost as anti-woman as their decision to play this year’s World Cup on artificial turf rather than real grass. The claim that FIFA makes that they are actually “ensuring a level playing field”[1] is absurd. Even if there have been allegations of cases where men have snuck into women’s teams, which is a dubious accusation, it is clear that this regulation is targeting women.

The misogynistic agenda of gender testing has been written about already, especially during the 2012 London Olympics[2]. One of the main questions is: who are sports officials to decide what the acceptable level of hormone is for someone to qualify as “female”? (and this is not even to mention the discrimination this causes against trans and intersex people…). Gender testing is an invasion of the bodies of the athletes who are tested, and a way of policing women’s bodies that are perceived as too masculine. I think it is important to pick apart the way that FIFA has presented their regulation on gender verification testing that they claim will ensure a level playing field and equality. I am most concerned with their claim that “the regulations define a standard management procedure for the gender verification of football players of both genders” and that tests will only be enforced in cases of “perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics”[3]. Firstly, let’s be honest boys, it is a joke that you claim you will be testing both genders. When has the question ever been asked, “Is Cristiano Ronaldo really a woman? He has a pretty face and plays so well, so he must be a woman.” No. This question will never be asked. On the other hand, whether it is in football or any other sport, if a woman performs exceptionally well, or if she has big muscles, short hair, or any other “masculine” physical attribute, it is naturally asked and will continue to be asked if she is indeed a man (think of Caster Semenya…) This is why the term “perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics” is so dangerous. The fact that it is not defined what those characteristics are, I think we can safely assume that unless someone on the FIFA medical staff or at one of the noted football associations has magical powers of deducing the exact level of hormone a woman has without testing her, they will base this “ deviation in secondary sex characteristics” on appearance and performance. Which means that our strongest and best women players are the most at risk of being tested. FIFA, and other international sports organisations with similar policies, are using this regulation as an excuse for the policing and violation of these elite women athletes’ bodies and that is a violation of their rights.

It is well known that the women football players who brought a legal case against FIFA and the Canada Soccer Association for a violation of their human rights over the decision to play this World Cup on artificial turf, unfortunately had to back down. Much has been written about the underlying implication for women’s bodies and gender inequality in relation to this turf decision (see Caitlin Fisher’s article: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/2/fifas-turf-debate-part-of-soccers-long-standing-gender-problem.html). I would also point out that the lack of respect for the Women’s game is not limited to FIFA. The fact that somehow between the two of them, FIFA and UEFA managed to plan the UEFA Men’s Champions League Final to be played on Saturday June 6, the same day as the first matches of the Women’s World Cup is a massive oversight. To me, this is emblematic of a lack of respect for women’s football and for the women players.

It is my opinion that the violation of women’s rights, bodies, and spaces to play that is represented by these recent events is happening because of an underlying belief throughout the world of football that women are not capable athletes and therefore do not deserve the equality or the same treatment as male players get. International football governing bodies have therefore gone from a failure of support for the women’s game, to truly showing themselves as anti-woman. And it is with this in mind that I encourage everyone to support the women who will be playing in the World Cup beginning on June 6, 2015 – who continue to play in spite of the structures they are stuck in that work against them, and in spite of inequality in almost every aspect of the bureaucratic structure of football. They play because they love the game, and they represent a fight that needs all the supporters it can get.

[1] http://www.ctvnews.ca/sports/why-fifa-requires-declaration-of-agreement-on-gender-verification-1.2402434

[2] http://www.ids.ac.uk/news/what-do-the-london-2012-olympics-reveal-about-women-s-empowerment

[3] http://www.fifa.com/development/news/y=2011/m=6/news=fifa-issues-gender-verification-regulations-for-all-competitions-1449540.html

How to be a women’s sports fan

Preface: This piece was inspired by the fact that this week is both the 2014 African Women’s Football Championship (CAF) and the UEFA Women’s Champions League Round of 32. I have not yet been able to watch ANY of the African Cup matches, and the UEFA matches only through low quality online streaming (but I am not complaining, at least I can find them). I wanted to be able to share a link or a tv station where it would be possible for anyone to watch an African women’s match, because there is so much exciting development happening in African women’s football, but unfortunately I was unable to find any such site for fans who are not currently in an African country. It is encouraging that my friends in Burkina Faso and South Africa are able to watch the CAF matches on their local television stations, and I am following the results closely on these websites: http://www.womenssoccerunited.com/african-womens-championship-fixtures/ and http://awcnamibia.com/index.php.

 

I am a women’s sports fan. I am a football fan[1]. I have spent my life around football; I play it, it is part of my work, I have coached, I meet people through a common interest in football. So why do I so rarely find myself watching professional women’s football? The most consecutive professional women’s matches I have watched in recent years were played on a dirt pitch in Burkina Faso by the burgeoning national women’s league. And why have I watched more women’s matches from the sidelines of sub-par pitches in different countries than televised professional matches from the elite women’s leagues around the world? Simply because of lack of access. While living in Ouagadougou, it was easy for me to drive over to a pitch after work and watch one of the women’s matches, but back in Europe I find that even if I know when I match will be played, it is not on any of the television stations I have access to, and most of the live streaming internet sites only host men’s matches. And I search, and search. Occasionally a local sports station will televise a match from the current UEFA women’s champions league, but I have found that I cannot rely on the same station to televise the following match. And this is just European teams, imagine how difficult it is to find televised women’s matches from other regions of the world.

It is true that women’s sports are growing, and the access we have to watching competitions now is a vast improvement on what it was even a few years ago. But, I have lately been reading a lot of commentary about the growing popularity of women’s sports and how people should support women athletes and should watch competitions. But should is not sufficient. Although I, as an avid supporter of women’s sports, am willing to spend hours searching for a way to watch a match, I don’t imagine that a potential new supporter would want to spend that time and energy. It has to be accessible, so that when we say, “hey did you watch the football match between the Arsenal women and the Olympique Lyonnais women?” and the answer is no, we can recommend how and where someone can watch the next match.

So, this what I think we can do:

  1. Follow your local women’s leagues. Any sport you are interested in, in any city you live in. Go see a competition, or a few. It may not be easy to find out when and where the competitions take place, but ask and search because you will find out, and it is worth it.
  1. Support women athletes who are fighting battles for equality. For example, the current suit that a group of international women football players have brought against FIFA for gender discrimination in the form of announcing that the Women’s World Cup 2015 is to be played on artificial turf. Something that was never brought into question for the men’s World Cup.[2]
  1. Be calm when you hear someone say that they would never watch a women’s sport because they think they are the lesser version of the men’s sport. You will feel the anger and fire build up inside, but instead of letting that out and making an enemy, try giving them an easy and concrete way of watching a women’s competition. Because the best thing ever is the surprise and respect on someone’s face the first time they see professional women play a sport they thought only men were good at.
  1. If you are interested in a specific sport, like football or basketball, search for professional competitions and international competitions and try to watch them.
  1. If you cannot find a television station that shows the women’s professional league that you want to watch, do something. Write to or call your local television stations. Mobilise friends who also want to watch and create a strategy to talk to the gatekeepers of televised sport in your city or region. The same goes for internet sites. If you can’t find a match that you wanted to watch on a site, try contacting them.
  1. Most importantly, share access, in any way you can.

Be a fan.

 

 

[1] I am talking about soccer

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2014/10/01/abby-wambach-nadine-angerer-and-other-soccer-stars-sue-fifa-over-world-cup-turf/