by Adriana Ermter
The thud of a football followed by the sounds of running fill the room. The young women call to each other to pass the ball. Their energy builds with each pass, block and kick and then, shouts of excitement as one of the girls shoots for the goal and scores! It's the winning goal. But for this all-girl- team in Northern Lebanon, playing football is about so much more than just winning. It's helping them to beat obstacles in their lives too... This is Asmaa's football team.
An anomaly in Northern Lebanon, where football is seen exclusively as a boys' and men's sport, Asmaa and her 20 all-female players meet each week to practice dribbling, drop kicks, passing and running drills. They play games against one another as there are no other female football teams in the area.
Originally, Asmaa was forbidden to build and coach a female football team. "It made me feel angry," says Asmaa. "I was being judged on something I love because I am a girl. Sport is for everyone. Girls and boys." The 22-year-old Palestinian woman refused to accept this. Her determination inspired and encouraged other young women living in Lebanon's Nahr Bared refugee camp to join in and play the game. "I built a football team for young women between 15 and 17 years old," says Asmaa.
Now, Asmaa and her teammates play regularly and are committed to the sport and the freedom it represents. "Girls are equal to boys," explains Asmaa. "When they play the same sport and are good at it, they see this and believe it."
Last year, Asmaa signed up for the Sports and Humanitarian Aid project with Right To Play. The organization was new to her, but she felt drawn to the program because it used football to teach leadership, coaching and the technical skills of sports and games, along with personal development.
"Having the same right as boys to participate in this project showed me I am worthy," says Asmaa. "It taught me teamwork, self-development, respect, communication and trust. And having the freedom to play proved I can overcome personal challenges, like living in a refugee camp. My freedom isn't where I live, it is how I feel inside. This made me feel very motivated to pass on what I had learned to the community; to encourage girls and women to participate in sports."
Aasma and her teammates love playing football, but they have struggled to find a place to play.
"No football organization would give me access to their field and when we did find somewhere to play, some of the community's religious members would stop us," explains Asmaa. "Then, the parents forbid their daughters from playing. This rejection made me angry, but it triggered a fire inside me. I decided to be an advocate for girls and women and change the community's misconceptions about girls playing sports. I will not give up."
Asmaa has stayed true to her word, visiting every house in the community, meeting with the parents and sharing awareness about children's rights and the benefits of girls and women participating in football. "I also invited the parents of the team members to our self-development sessions so that they could see the changes in their daughters," adds Asmaa. "The young women are learning to be confident and respectful with each other; to act like leaders. The parents saw this and started to understand the powerful, learning-impact football has."
Since then, Asmaa has received support from the team's parents. "They enrolled their daughters onto the team with no hesitation and they are now also advocating for gender equality to other families in the community," says Asmaa. "I have 20 young women on my team! I still can't find a football field to practice on, so we're playing and practicing our sessions at the Nabaa centre twice a week. But we're okay with that. Like me, the young women feel free when they play."