In Jordan, a handful of female athletes have managed to establish the Women’s National Football Team in their conservative society. In just over a decade, they rose from zero to hero.
Losing the first match was something none of them had really thought about. Maybe because no one dared to think about it when all their energy was needed for winning their first two group games against the Philippines and Thailand which would take them to France for the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year.
When the final whistle blew, the dream was shattered, and some of the women in white sank onto the perfectly green lawn planted just for this occasion, the first senior international football tournament hosted in an Arab country. Their faces buried in their hands, it felt like all was lost.
For minutes, no one knew what to say as the last of the 16,000 spectators were deserting the floodlit Stadium Amman, which two hours ago, had been buzzing with excitement and red, black, green and white flags.
“We cannot see if we have achieved anything if we haven’t reached the World Cup,” Jordanian forward Shahnaaz Jebreen said before the opening game of the Asian Cup, the Asian continent’s qualifying tournament for the Women’s World Cup, which Jordan hosted this April.
For her and the other founding members of Jordan’s National Team all that counted was the qualification for France.
What Jebreen couldn’t see at the time is that she and her teammates have moved mountains in the conservative Jordanian society ever since they started playing just over a decade ago.
Two years after the kingdom hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the Asian Cup itself was a proof of that, no matter the outcome, and the team was celebrated in Jordan, with their pictures decorating the capital Amman in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
Massive billboards showing each of the Jordanian players were installed at the city’s busiest intersections with Because she is the hope for the future, or Because her ambition is unlimited – support her, written next to the athletes.
“Unlike two years ago where we promoted just the tournament, this time we decided to focus on the women as individuals,” said Rahaf Owais, the head of the Asian Cup marketing campaign. “The players are well known in the country, they have profiles.”
Thirteen years ago, when women’s football became official, no one would have dreamed about this.
“Why is a girl wearing shorts? Why isn’t she staying at home and gets married? people were asking when they first started playing,” says defender Yasmeen Khair, who was one of the first to play.
She was off that day, a Friday, so for a change she wasn’t wearing tracksuit pants and a jersey. She was sitting in her family’s reception room wearing skinny jeans, her big curly hair falling onto her black sweater as she recalls the early days of women’s football in Jordan.
Khair chuckled at how strange it was when she and some others started playing the sport that was – and still is – dominated by men. It was unheard of in the conservative Kingdom, where the conventional path for women is to finish school, go to university, get married and have children.
In the early 2000s only one club in Amman had a female team. Girls were either playing in the streets or at school, but without competition or recognition.
Despite that, Khair, who used to be a world class gymnast, decided to dedicate her life to football, the sport she loves most.
Supported by her family, especially her father who is the chairman of the Club Shebab Al Ordon where he initiated the second girls’ team in the country in 2004, she kept on playing, and so did a few others.
In 2005, the first national team was formed, out of roughly 30 female players in the country. The core of that team is at the height of their careers today.
“What helped in the beginning were our victories,” says Khair. The very year the national team was founded it won the West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship, beating Palestine, Iran, Syria and Bahrain.
They repeated the victory two years later and are now the best team in the Middle East.
There have been many obstacles along the way. Society has been a continuous source of pressure. As a result, those who were serious about pursuing the sport on a professional level had to juggle several lives, as football is not considered a profession in Jordan.
At age 26, Shahnaaz Jebreen, has not yet obtained her degree as a physiotherapist.
“I lost many semesters due to the lack of support from my university,” she says. Souvenirs from her journeys across the world decorate Jebreen’s family’s home in West Amman. Gadgets like plates from the Balkans, figurines from China, kitchen utensils from Thailand are sitting on the shelves and on the walls.
She and other athletes who study, often miss class because of duties related to the national team, like training camps or tournaments. The University has not been understanding, she says.
“Many women stopped playing because of that. I managed to keep playing because of my family.” But however challenging university and society may have been, there is only one incident in all those years which really bothered her.
In 2010, the International Football Federation Fifa decided to ban headscarves from the field. “It was the worst,” she remembers.
“The cap they told us to wear was not appropriate.” The decision banned her and two other core players of the Jordanian team and made them miss the qualification for the Olympic Games they were playing at the time.
“It hurt. Because why? Why can I not play? They infringed on an issue they weren’t supposed to get involved in in the first place.”
FIFA only decided to lift the ban after the intervention of Prince Ali Bin Hussein of Jordan who is the president of the West Asian Football Federation and one of the most prominent and passionate supporters.
The Prince has been crucial for the women. He is a regular at the team’s games and training sessions, and he is one of the main factors leading to today legitimacy of women’s football within the more conservative circles of Jordan’s society
They are called the “Nashmiyat,” a word which has no translation but stands for a deep love for Jordan.
Moreover, in the weeks leading up to the Asian Cup, the media attention grew exponentially – there was hardly a day with no TV crew at the edge of the pitch or radio visits of the players who took turns in giving interviews.
“The story about how women who cover their hair are changing stereotypes in the Middle East was fine ten years ago,” says Samar Nasser, a former Olympic swimmer for Jordan and member of the Jordanian Football Association’s board. Now, Jordan is a realistic competitor on an international level, despite not having qualified for France.
It will take the team time to digest the disappointment of the Asian Cup. But the road has not come to an end.
A week after the last group game, which Jordan lost against China, Yasmeen Khair sent a message: “Maybe we didn’t fulfil our personal dream,” it said, “but we gave opportunity to many generations after us who will not surrender. And inshallah, one day Jordan is going to reach the World Cup.”
Victoria Schneider is a freelance writer reporting from the Middle East and Subsaharan Africa. She was a fellow of the Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York and has published with Al Jazeera, Guardian, and many others.