Fri, Aug 24, 2007 - Page 22 News List

Tajik girls press forward on the pitch

AFP, DUSHANBE

A girl heads the ball while playing soccer in Dushanbe on Aug. 14. Competitive sports are usually territory for men only in Tajikistan.

PHOTO: AFP

On the defensive at home and in society, teenage girls are nonetheless pressing forward on the soccer pitch in the impoverished, mainly Muslim Central Asian state of Tajikistan.

By playing the "Beautiful Game" alongside their male classmates they are defying deeply engrained cultural traditions that have long relegated them to the sidelines.

"My mother opposed my choice," explained Sitora Rakhimova, a 14-year-old student in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, describing the first obstacle she hit after deciding to join a local girls' soccer team.

"My father told my mother to let me play," she said. "Now my parents come to watch me play, and we watch football [soccer] matches at home together. Even my mother is beginning to get a taste for it."

Sitora plays for Hirondel, an all-girls team created in April with support from FIFA, which backs local plans to expand the number of girls' teams in Tajikistan -- there are currently only five -- and establish girls-only soccer camps.

"Girls' football is beginning to take root here, despite certain prejudices," explained Sulaimon Bobokalonov, the 47-year-old trainer of the Hirondel team and a former starter with the professional Tajik side Pamir.

Those prejudices, deeply embedded in Tajikistan's ancient religious and cultural traditions, provide formidable obstacles for ethnic Tajik teenage girls who see their peers, even in conservative Muslim countries, enjoying soccer and other sports, and who want to do the same.

"These are young, modern, urban girls who are playing sports," sociologist Sabokhat Alimova said. "But in the countryside, parents formally prohibit girls from participating in sports. They don't want men to see their daughters in sports attire," like the shorts and T-shirts worn by the few girls playing soccer.

Religious leaders in this country where 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim also take a dim view of girls playing soccer.

"I am against the presence of any men on the field when women are playing," said one member of the Islamic Center of Tajikistan who asked not to be named, citing sensitivities between his organization and the country's secular government, which supports girls' soccer programs.

In an afterthought, he said: "The girls should really just stay at home."

Even the head of Tajikistan's soccer federation, Sherali Davlatov, sees a future of stark, absolute choices for teenage Tajik girls pursuing soccer goals, voicing scepticism that this could ever amount to much more than a youthful hobby.

"When these female footballers come of age, they are going to have to make a choice: marriage, studies or sport," he said.

Even some of the girls who joined the Hirondel team when it was launched last spring appear already to have made that choice, several having dropped out, Bobokalonov said.

Although ethnic Russian girls living in Tajikistan have played and often excelled in a variety of athletic disciplines, the challenges today for Tajik girls to do anything of the kind are daunting.

"I want to become a famous football player," stated Jonona Rakhimova, 13, who also plays on the Hirondel team. "I like team sports where I can really feel the other players around me."

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