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Libya’s women footballers struggle on and off pitch

The Libyan women’s football team faces the challenges of being in a conservative society where it is frowned upon to play sports in public © AFP / MAHMUD TURKIA

Libya’s national women’s football team is not only struggling on the pitch but also battling a conservative society that frowns on women playing sports in public at all.

Female athletes and women’s teams have many critics in the patriarchal Muslim country.

“Go cover yourself!” “Your place is at home.” You’re playing because “you have no man to educate you” — such comments are hurled at players every time they train, said centre-forward Saida Saad.

Like her teammates, she wears thick tights under her shorts so as not to reveal too much skin. But for some critics, that’s nowhere near enough.

“For the love of sport, we resist,” said Saad, from the eastern city of Benghazi. “We are trying to change attitudes in society.”

She joined her teammates for a training session in the capital Tripoli’s Sports City ahead of a two-leg African Cup qualifying match against Ethiopia earlier this month.

– Challenges on –

Coach Hassan Ferjani had modest ambitions for his team — getting them fit enough to last 90 minutes on the pitch.

“Poor things, it’ll be the first time they play on a big field,” he said.

Just a few days ahead of the match, only 10 players made it to the training session.

Others, including some based in the United States, joined the team in Cairo — venue for the “home” match, as world football’s governing body, FIFA, does not allow internationals in strife-torn Libya — for the showdown with Ethiopia.

They lost that match 8-0 and were thrashed 7-0 in the second leg in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, unable to notch up a single goal.

“Regardless of the final score, they have made us proud as they have shown amazing resilience against both patriarchal culture & violent extremism. They deserve ALL support!” Zahra Langhi, a Libyan human rights activist, wrote on Twitter.

With no women’s football league in Libya, players for the national team are selected at tournaments in schools across the country.

And while training these young women to an international standard is a daunting challenge, in many cases the hardest part is convincing their families to let them play.

Many parents of potential players flat-out forbid their daughters from taking part.

Others accept, on condition that they accompany their daughters on their travels. Ferjani said the team’s lack of resources means that is a tall order.

Faced with these obstacles, the coach said he had come close to throwing in the towel.

“What pushes me to continue is the will and the determination of the players who want to improve their level,” he said.

But, he added, “the battle off the field is much more important”.

– ‘Changing mentalities’ –

“There are many girls with talent but were unjustly barred from playing football” because of social pressures, said Rasha Nouri, a veteran of Libya’s national team, dubbed the Knights of the Mediterranean.

Nouri, 25, said she initially faced “a lot of difficulties in this very conservative society”.

After she was selected during a high school tournament, her parents encouraged her to take the sport further.

“They challenged (society) alongside me and supported me,” she said.

Having earned her coaching licence, she said she now hopes to train women’s youth teams and eventually start a national league.

She also wants to “change mentalities via social networks and the media”, she said.

Souad al-Shibani, head of women’s football at the Libyan Football Federation, told AFP the body plans to launch a programme to develop the sport, starting with a school football league for young women.

“We will try to organise matches in schools every Saturday,” she said.

Shibani said she was “optimistic” about the future of football in Libya because the younger generation was “more open and more enthusiastic”.

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