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Kicking Goals for Women’s Sport in Jordan

soccer 1.jpg

charlotte grieve

For two months, a neon sign on a roundabout in downtown Amman has been flashing the same redundant message:

“Zero days to go… Zero days to go.”

It’s a reminder of the excitement that took over Jordan back in September as the country counted down to the launch of the 2016 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

It was the first time a women’s tournament had been held in the region and for Dr Nihad Al-Battikhi, the founder of Jordan’s first women’s football team, this marked a coming of age for football in the Middle East.

“Football is my daughter, and this is my daughter’s wedding,” she says.

“When you started something and now it has reached the world championships, it’s amazing.”

“Football is my daughter, and this is my daughter’s wedding."

At the turn of the century, Dr Al-Battikhi was working as the manager of the Sports Centre at the University of Jordan. During a time of regional instability, she wanted to create a way to keep her students from getting into trouble.

“I wanted to find something for the students that would stop them from turning to drugs, to terrorism,” Dr Al-Battikhi says.

A mural in the Sweifieh district of Amman honours the national Under 17s Women’s Football Team. (Charlotte Grieve)

A mural in the Sweifieh district of Amman honours the national Under 17s Women’s Football Team. (Charlotte Grieve)

During this time, she faced backlash from both the students’ parents and the community at large.

“It was not easy ­– they did not agree,” she tells SBS Life.

“Some people still think that football is a boy’s game. We wanted to prove them wrong,” says footballer Farah Zaben.

Sixteen years later, thousands of Jordanians filled three stadiums over September and October to watch 16 nations compete in 32 games.

At age 17, Zaben has been playing football for most of her life. The game has taken her around the world, where she’s competed internationally from Germany to Uzbekistan. She now holds the position of right back for Jordan’s national team and knows how important the tournament was for the future of women’s sport.

“It’s a huge event for us to host, not only for Jordan but also for the Middle East, for women, and for the way the world sees Arabs,” Zaben says.  

Made easier by FIFA’s decision to lift the uniform ban on headscarves, the tournament has been hailed as the kingdom’s biggest ever sporting event and is a source of pride for many Jordanians. Having received ongoing support from Prince Ali bin Hussein, the lead up to the Games saw one of the largest investments in infrastructure via an upgrade of the facilities to reach global standards.

Zaben’s eyes fill with excitement as she remembers the moment her team scored a goal for their country.

“Everyone ran onto the field, we started bowing down. Some of us cried – we were all so happy.”

Playing to an audience of over 40,000 Jordanians, mid-fielder Jeeda Naber says she felt numb with anticipation.

“As we approached the stadium and saw everyone waving at us, wearing our T-shirts and holding the Jordanian flag, you can’t quite explain it. There are no words,” Naber recounts.

“It’s the first time that women can actually feel like we’re one step ahead of men."

Although the team didn’t make it to the final round, that memorable goal meant more than just points on the score board; the game broke stereotypes, put women’s sport on the agenda, and gave confidence to young girls throughout the country.

“It was women who got the World Cup, not men. So it’s the first time that women can actually feel like we’re one step ahead of men,” Naber says.

There is a mural in the street of the Sweifieh district dedicated to the Women’s World Cup. Zaben and Naber are proud to be known as the “soccer girls” and are looking forward to finishing their final exams so they can start training for the 2017 Asian Championships.

“It’s now time to learn from our mistakes, believe in ourselves and start progressing,” Naber says.