Throughout the whole of Jordan, there are currently 720 registered female players. The figure may sound tremendously modest for a population of over 6.4 million among whom the most popular sport is football, but it embodies a crucial first step for the women’s game in the country.
On 30 September 2016, another historic step will be taken when the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup kicks off in Amman to become the first FIFA women’s tournament ever to be hosted in the Middle East – a region where the cultural barriers for women’s sports events tend to produce meek statistics like the one above.
Nassar is herself a role model when it comes to breaking these barriers and defying gender stereotypes, having taken part in two editions of the Olympic Games as a swimmer, representing Palestine in 2000 and Jordan in 2004. From the impact that her accomplishments had on young women across the Middle East, she knows exactly how a tournament like the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup comes down to a lot more than just the game. “When young girls are on the pitch here, they are not just kicking the ball for themselves or their countries, but for all the girls out there - for women’s empowerment and for promoting gender equality.”
From the basics
The development of women’s football in Jordan is a solid example to look at, not simply because the country will host the tournament, but given how long a way it has come in a very short period. “Women’s football only started in Jordan in 2005, and still we’re one of the pioneers in west Asia,” says the coach of the U-17 national team, Maher Abu Hantash
“It was a tough start. The biggest challenge was getting society to accept the idea of girls playing football. When we talked to families, many did not agree with it. But over time, as the game became popular in schools and universities and the national team began to do well, it started to become more normal,” explains Hantash, who has been leading the project of recruiting and training young players to represent the hosts next year.
Across the 19 countries in the MENA region, most of them predominantly Muslim, there are currently 13,890 registered female players – a number that has been mounting thanks to the constant investment in development activities. In 2015, FIFA organised a total of 27 events in the region, including seven Live Your Goals festivals that put 1,250 girls in contact with football, often for the first time in their lives. In November alone, for example, FIFA organised a coaching course in Cairo, Egypt, with 50 per cent female participation; a goalkeeping course conducted by former Frankfurt and Dutch international Marleen Wissink for a group of 30 females in Teheran, Iran, and a Live Your Goals festival for 144 girls in Kerak, Jordan.
In the case of Jordan, embracing the Live Your Goals project is just one of several activities foreseen in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup legacy programme. By improving football infrastructure, organising coaching courses and launching public school tournaments for girls, for example, FIFA and the Jordan Football Association (JFA) are working to ensure that the event leaves a lasting impact on the country’s women’s football development.
“Our aim is to increase the number of girls playing football, while educating the local community about the importance of the women’s game,” explains the Head of Women’s Football at the JFA, Abeer Rantisi, during the festival in Kerak. “We started with the Live Your Goals project in October 2014 and participation has been great. We hope to see this same level of participation across the whole country. After all, beyond organising the tournament, we hope to increase the popularity of the women’s game in the country.”
There is still a long way to go for women’s football in the region, but the seeds have clearly been sown. “To have young girls playing sports, and playing football specifically, can do so much to change attitudes and perceptions as to how society perceives girls and young women,” says Her Royal Highness Princess Basma Bint Talal of Jordan, an important voice in favour of women’s rights and gender equity. “If a Jordanian woman wants to play football, I say ‘go for it’. Because you are a role model for society, for changing traditional roles and challenging the negative perception regarding women. And football is the healthiest and the most inspiring way to do all this.”