Niamey — People may criticise her, but Faouzia Sidi Ahmed(19) says she doesn’t care.
“I live my life as I please,” says the Niger women’s national football team player, dressed in shorts with her hair pulled back: “I want to play football.”
In Niger, a Muslim-majority country, female football players face prejudice in a society where the sport is not traditionally seen as a feminine pursuit.
Muslim cleric Bizo Oumarou told AFP that women’s football “is not permitted under Islam” and sport is not appropriate as recreation for women.
Women can “play sports for health” or to “gain endurance in case of war or for work”, but a woman “shouldn’t be seen in an outfit that exposes parts of her body, especially her legs,” he said National team coach Ali Mamadou thinks differently and says nimble young players are managing to dribble around the obstacles thrown in their path.
“Religion is really a barrier,” he told AFP.
“We don’t have that many problems with the parents, but we realise that in our country religion can really put a brake on this kind of thing, and it’s not easy.
“But we still manage to get round it a little bit and really have a good level of participation with these young girls.”
Faouzia rejects the view that Islam should be a barrier to football for women.
“My parents didn’t forbid me to play. You can be Muslim and play the sport,” says Faouzia, a national team defender who proudly wears the team’s green, white and red jersey with a number three on the back.
Faouzia started playing football with boys as a school girl. At college, she was able to continue playing with the support of her physical education teacher. “I was then recruited by AS Police (a club in Niamey) where I played for two years and now I play for AS Garde Nationale,” another club in Niamey, she said.
Other female players insist the sport is not incompatible with their religion.
“I do my five daily prayers,” says Aichatou Mohamed, 16, wearing the national team woolly hat, who reconciles football and her job as a seamstress.
“People shouldn’t think we’re miscreants just because we play football.”
Most of the players, high schoolers and middle schoolers, are concentrated in Niamey, the capital. Female players are hard to find in other cities and completely absent in the countryside.
There are 650 licensed female footballers playing at 22 clubs, according to Amina Moussa, responsible for promoting women’s football for the national federation.
This year, the federation origanised its first women’s championship, and about a dozen teams participated.
“I fell in love with football as a child when I played with boys in the neighbourhood. Onlookers would applaud me even when I’d dribbled around the boys,” explains Aichatou.
However, most of the players are under pressure from those around them.
“Some people tell me playing ball is a waste of time for a girl,” says Sadia Lawali Kache, 17. The national team player insists female footballers are no different to other women.
“When I started playing, people called me a tomboy and said a girl shouldn’t play football,” recalls Kadidja Ousmane, 19, team goalkeeper.
“I ignored them and then the same people noticed that I was going abroad to play games and they asked me how come I travel a lot? And I told them it was thanks to football.”
Aware of the slow growth of women’s football, the national federation, supported by FIFA, NGOs and foreign officials, tries to boost the sport through tournaments, equipment donations and education of parents.
While continuing to kick the ball, Faouzia, who is going to graduate from high school this year, says “I’d like to say that people should let their children play. It will make them smart.” — AFP