There is a common belief across the globe that if you are a veiled Muslim woman, then you are somewhat limited in choice especially when it comes to practicing sports.
International media often depicts veiled Muslim women as oppressed, stay-at-home mums who spend their days shopping and cooking for their husbands, yet this is far from reality because veiled women just like other women participate in every aspect of daily life including sport.
Lena Rodgers is a Syrian -British woman who resides in Dubai, UAE and works as a Social Media Executive during the day but in the evening and weekends she turns her focus to football; her hobby and passion.
Playing the boys’ game
At the young age of 9 years old, Lena first encountered the beautiful game as she had to accompany her mother in taking Lena’s little brother to his football lessons “mum took me to watch and I couldn’t just stand there, I felt this instinctive urge to play too.”
As a child, Lena was more intrigued by football than any other activity; it was the one sport that she was the best at and found it easy and fun. Other girls didn’t actually know Lena was playing football as it was still a new and culturally strange concept for girls to play such sport, it was only when she began secondary school that Lena got into a girls team and slowly the idea of a girl playing football became accepted by everyone.
“I was an all-rounder sports child but catching and throwing were my other talents” Lena recalls.
By the age of 9, she began training with a professional football coach who was an injured ex-footballer and it was he who helped develop her football skills. A few years later, she started to learn advanced football skills on her own and through practice games with her team in Dubai College.
The difference between the facilities of coaching football back then and now is huge according to Lena.
“I currently coach girls, skills that I didn’t learn until my 20s and they learn it while they are only 4-12 years of age. It makes me sad to think how many skills I could have been taught that would have enabled me to become natural at them when I was younger” she explained.
This is in fact a positive sign; indicating that the concept of girls playing football in the Middle East region has actually developed and progressed.
From the start of her footballing career, Lena was lucky to have the full support of her family although she admits that she still gets surprised looks upon informing her extended family that she plays football “they see a girl and they just don’t think you’re actually any good at playing a boys’ game.” Yet in reality, Lena was always as good as her siblings and sometimes better skilled especially in defense, a skill that she excels at.
“I found myself good at it, sometimes better than boys so it made sense to continue. I was also the star of my defense so that praise kept me going. I was depended on and I felt useful.”
passion, talent and determination led Leena to play in an amateur league, where she won the Dubai Football Women’s Association league with her previous team ‘Arabian Leopards’ before moving to her current team ‘Sandstorm’. Lena also plays in a mixed league and tournaments which is a new trend that started in 2014, at present there are no professional teams for expat women in the UAE. All clubs are local orientated.
People’s reactions to the women’s football team are always of surprise curiosity, they assume that girls don’t play as good as guys.
Off the pitch, they are usually impressed and don’t expect it when I say I play football. You almost feel like you have to justify to them that you are good and just as good as the guys or even better. The standard is set in their eyes as soon as they see a girl and a veiled one at that which makes the task of the female footballer much harder than her male counterpart ; they need to do double effort in order to earn the audience’s respect in a way.
On the pitch though it is different story as male footballers hold back, some don’t want to hurt the female footballers, some think that “they shouldn’t challenge you – somehow they do it sympathetically, and some just refuse to play with girls because they think that they are not going to get a tough game out of it. Also the more annoying part is when they don’t pass to you as much because they think you are going to cost them the game (these are the times you need to prove yourself)” states Lena who firmly believes that there is not one view of women in Muslim/Arab society.
There are stereotypes and one of them is becoming, the “Arab sports woman’’.Religion never plays a factor when it comes to the sport because the rules are the same for everyone.The only time religion makes a difference is when it comes to team kits and that the Muslim girls stand out a bit if they wear hijab.At the end of the day, in football if you play well, no one cares where you’re from or what you are wearing – they are ‘greedy’ for your talent and contribution more than letting religion or ethnicity come between you.
Lena regards football as both a hobby and a way of life but she also coaches football so it is fair to say it is a profession too! She loves everything about football because “it teaches you team work, reflection, improvement, fitness, excitement, urgency, awareness of your surroundings, concentration, handling situations under pressure – almost everything! It also makes me incredibly happy so I am so committed to it.”
The dream of playing football professionally is what keeps Lena’s ambition going.It is evident that veiled women footballers are on the increase something that is echoed by Lena
“I think it is definitely on the rise and, Inshallah, there will be more professional Cups, Leagues and Tournaments being organized for them because there is such a high demand for it.”