It’s a sight that few would imagine in Cairo — an American football field full of Egyptian women.
From humble beginnings in 2016 with only three teams, Egypt’s all-female informal “flag football” league now has eight clubs vying for supremacy in the capital.
The version played by women here is non-contact, with players seeking to snatch flags tucked into opponents’ waistbands.
For the young women who have taken up the game, which faces stiff competition for attention in a nation mad about soccer, it’s a chance to escape the many pressures of city life.
Habiba Mohamed, 19, says her friends and parents were surprised about her new passion.
“When I told them at home I will practise American football, my father and mother told me: ‘How is this possible? You need to be careful,'” she says.
Mohamed is kitted out in the green-and-yellow jersey of her team, Gezira Thunder, which is playing rivals the AUC Titans at the Maadi Olympics Centre, a stadium that normally functions as a soccer venue.
It proves a good day for her, as Gezira storms to victory, albeit in a largely empty arena, save for a smattering of cheering friends and family.
A teammate is keen to emphasise the non-contact nature of flag football.
“My friends thought it was a violent sport but it is not, as I have told them, and when they came to watch the games, they liked the sport a lot,” says 20-year-old quarterback Yara Tawheed.
“The level of violence in this sport is similar to that in ballet,” she adds.
– Release for stress and anger –
But some would prefer to play the full contact version. Alia Haytham, 22, a student at Cairo’s American University, says she hopes to play the undiluted game, to help her release anger and energy.
“But this does not detract from flag football being fun,” she says. “All of us here have problems at university and at home, but as soon as we enter the pitch we forget everything that preoccupies us.”
The coach of another female team, the adventurously named Hell Hounds, is proud of his players.
“If you see how hard these girls work, I think you would really admire what they put into it,” says 30-year old American Matthew Kershey.
Egypt became a member of the International Federation of American Football in 2014. The federation is leading a drive to register teams outside Cairo and expects several new clubs will be up and running in time for next season.
But the game “is not new in Egypt, where it was initiated among men in 2007”, Asmaa Marie, a spokeswoman for the Egyptian Federation of American Football, tells AFP.
Marie, who wears the Islamic hair cover and plays regularly, cites similar motivations to Haytham. “The game has helped me control my anger and release stress.”
– International games –
Games have even been organised against teams in other countries. Last year, Cairo Warriors, another of the capital’s teams, played a Moroccan outfit in a friendly, and early this year they took part in a tournament in the US.
In a socially conservative country, playing a spectator sport can be a radical departure from the norm for women — especially games traditionally associated with Western men.
But Marie believes that “the game’s popularity in Egypt will surpass that of many team sports, like volleyball and handball”.
“The American football community in Egypt has grown, and we feel that we all know each other,” she says.