- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jalila al-Nuaimi is an appreciative guest. She’s also a striker, same as her on-field idol. So when the United Arab Emirates women’s national soccer team gathered in front of a television during a recent tour of the United States to watch a thrilling World Cup match between the Americans and Brazil, Ms. al-Nuaimi was torn.

Root for her gracious hosts?

Or pull for her longtime hero?

“I’m sorry, but I was with Brazil,” said Ms. al-Nuaimi, a 22-year-old from Dubai.

“[Brazilian striker and five-time FIFA World Player of the Year] Marta is my favorite player,” she explained. “Everyone was cheering ‘USA!’ I was yelling ‘Marrrrtaaaa!’ “

A laugh. A grin.

“I was the only one,” she said.

As members of one of the first international women’s sports squads from the oil-rich, predominantly Islamic Persian Gulf nation, Ms. al-Nuaimi and her teammates are familiar with standing out. In many ways, they epitomize the state of female athletes across the Middle East: competitive neophytes, cultural trailblazers, navigating both the fields of play and a larger social shift from traditional gender roles to modern, Western-style equality.

“These girls are pioneers,” said Connie Selby, the United Arab Emirates women’s coach and a former Australian national soccer coach and captain. “I was the same thing for Australia. It’s a challenge. But the ball is starting to roll a bit faster.”

Case in point: Last week, Ms. Selbyand her players held a clinic with the D.C. Boys & Girls club at Cardozo High, leading local children through soccer drills and later signing autographs. During a three-week American trip, the 19-member United Arab Emirates squad - ranging in age from 14 to 27 - also trained with the Philadelphia Independence, a professional women’s team, and took part in cultural tourism, including a State Department visit and a stop at the “Rocky” steps in Philadelphia.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, said the tour was both a way for the team to experience first-class soccer and for his nation of 5.1 million to showcase its progress on women’s rights.

“We’re still in the beginning phases of developing it to be a part of the society where it’s normal to go to any public playground and find girls playing soccer,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But we’re trying to set a very high bar, show that there are no limits for women. We’re trying to distinguish the U.A.E. as a little different than the neighborhood.”

Heavily influenced by Islamic fundamentalism and long-standing cultural mores, the surrounding Persian Gulf neighborhood in question has a history of restricting women in both sports and society. Saudi Arabia, for instance, does not allow women to vote or drive. Women’s sports are formally banned; female gyms and recreational athletics are low profile and semiunderground; in state-run schools, physical exercise of any kind for women is prohibited. Two years ago, Saudi race officials even refused to let a female Russian driver compete in an international rally race.

Similarly, a female wrestling club in Iraq disbanded after receiving death threats from religious extremists, and last year the Kuwaiti women’s soccer team was dubbed contrary to “human nature and good customs” by conservative lawmakers after participating in a tournament in Abu Dhabi.

While some Muslim clerics argue that sports will lead women to wear immodest clothes, spend unnecessary time outside of the house, and face lowered odds of landing a husband because running and jumping may - no, really - damage their hymens, change is under way throughout the region.

According to the International Olympic Committee, nearly 150 female athletes from 18 predominantly Muslim countries participated in the 2008 Beijing Games, a fivefold increase from the 1988 Seoul Games. Future World Cup host Qatar sent zero women to Beijing; the country sent 64 women to last year’s Asian Games, up from eight women in 2002. Prominent Saudis - including King Abdullah’s daughter - have spoken out in favor of female athletic participation. In August, an 18-year old female Saudi equestrian rider won a show jumping bronze medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, never mind a lack of formal government support.

Such is the fits-and-starts nature of progress: In Iran, women are not permitted to attend soccer games played by men. Yet when a senior cleric denounced Iranian women winning 14 medals - one of them gold - at last year’s Asian Games, noted human rights paragon President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly expressed his support and a desire to win more gold medals next time.

“We’re changing the mindset,” said United Arab Emirates women’s soccer committee chair Hafsa al-Ulama, who accompanied the team in Washington. “When I was young and our country was new, the older girls were not finishing school. They were not allowed. Now, almost all finish school and go to university also.

“I loved sports in school. But I didn’t get to play soccer. Even 10 years ago, there were not these opportunities.”

Flash-forward to 2004, when a half-dozen young women began meeting to play soccer at a sports club in Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital city. They caught the attention of the club’s owner, who provided a small training budget and encouraged other girls to participate.

Four years later, United Arab Emirates officials formally embraced the program, hiring Ms. Selby to help grow the sport and ultimately make the team an international factor.

The captain of Australia’s first women’s national team in 1978, Ms. Selby knew soccer startups. She knew sexism, too, from old school men who didn’t think women belonged on the pitch.

Still, the United Arab Emirates job was unique. Her new charges had only scrimmaged in 7-on-7 games, never with full 11-woman sides. None of the players had competed outside of the country. All were either in school or working full-time jobs, making simple matters like practice time difficult to schedule.

Moreover, cultural differences abounded. While most players were content to wear standard-issue shorts and T-shirts, some wanted to wear traditional Muslim headscarves, called hijabs. Others didn’t want to play in front of male spectators. A few players quit because their families disapproved of women playing sports. Others simply kept their participation a secret.

Nayla Ibrahim, a 25-year-old police officer and goalkeeper, reportedly left the team for a month because her parents were bombarded with complaints from friends and relatives - and then rejoined the squad because not playing left her depressed.

“It’s a little more difficult because of the culture,” Ms. Selby said. “But there’s ways around that if we do it the diplomatic way.”

According to Ms. al-Ulama, diplomacy means meeting traditional culture halfway. To wit: Although international soccer governing body FIFA prohibits headscarves for making a political statement, the United Arab Emirates team allows modesty-minded Muslim players to wear hijabs, leg stockings and long-sleeve T-shirts. Likewise, closed-door scrimmages are held for players uncomfortable appearing before men, and team officials address skeptical parents with a positive, consistent message: Soccer isn’t harmful. Girls enjoy playing. It makes them fit and healthy.

Today, a nascent United Arab Emirates women’s soccer academy in Abu Dhabi has more than 40 participants, many of them teenagers.

“Their parents said go ahead, travel thousands of miles all the way to the States. And that is amazing, a major shift,” Ms. al-Ulama said. “When you change, you have resistance. We knew that. We took it very slowly. The philosophy we use is just, ‘Bring your girls. Let them play.’ “

Reinforcing the message are United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his wife, Princess Haya, both of whom support women’s sports and are equestrian enthusiasts. Similarly, Sheik Mohammed’s daughter, Sheika Maitha, competes in taekwondo and carried her nation’s flag at the Beijing Games.

According to Mr. al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates is introducing martial arts and other sports to schoolgirls, the better to combat rising rates of obesity and diabetes. With government backing, the women’s soccer team has taken training trips to Switzerland and Germany and imported opponents from Montenegro and Uzbekistan.

Last year, the squad recorded its first significant international victory, upsetting Jordan 1-0 in the West Asian Football Federation championship - a match played in Abu Dhabi on live national television - before an audience that included men.

“I always played [soccer] with the boys,” said Ms. al-Nuaimi, the 22-year-old striker. “Since I was 4 years old. Now those boys are cheering for me.

“It was a very big thing to us and the whole country. They knew we could play and that we could win, that we could be champions.”

As much as Ms. al-Nuaimi loves Brazil’s Marta, she looks forward to the day she can flip on a television and pull instead for one of her countrywomen.

“This is the first step, and I’m very happy to be the first,” she said. “I can’t wait to take what I learned in America back to my country and tell other girls my story. I know they will be excited and want to join the team. There’s a whole world outside waiting for us.”

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