People might criticize her, but Faouzia Sidi Ahmed, 19, said that she does not care.
“I live my life as I please,” said the Niger women’s national soccer team player, dressed in shorts with her hair pulled back. “I want to play football.”
In Niger, a Muslim-majority country, female soccer players face prejudice in a society where the sport is not traditionally seen as a feminine pursuit.
Muslim cleric Bizo Oumarou told reporters that women’s soccer “is not permitted under Islam” and sports are not appropriate as recreation for women.
Women can “play sports for health” or to “gain endurance in case of a 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 said he thinks differently, adding that nimble young players are managing to dribble around the obstacles thrown in their path.
“Religion is really a barrier,” he told reporters. “We don’t have that many problems with the parents, but we realize that in our country religion can really put a brake on this kind of thing, and it’s not easy.”
“We still manage to get round it a little bit and really have a good level of participation with these young girls,” Mamadou added.
Sidi Ahmed rejects the view that Islam should be a barrier to soccer for women.
“My parents didn’t forbid me to play. You can be Muslim and play the sport,” said Faouzia, a national team defender who proudly wears the team’s green, white and red jersey with a No. 3 on the back.
Sidi Ahmed started playing soccer 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], on which I played for two years, and now I play for AS Garde Nationale,” another club in Niamey, she said.
Other female players insist that the sport is not incompatible with their religion.
“I do my five daily prayers,” said Aichatou Mohamed, 16, wearing the national team woolly hat.
She balances soccer and her job as a seamstress.
“People shouldn’t think that we’re miscreants just because we play soccer,” Mohamed added.
Most of the players — those in high school and middle school — live in Niamey, the capital. Female players are difficult to find in other cities and completely absent in the countryside.
There are 650 licenced female soccer players on 22 clubs, according to Amina Moussa, responsible for promoting women’s soccer for the national federation.
This year, the federation origanized 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 neighborhood,” Mohamed said. “Onlookers would applaud me even when I’d dribbled around the boys.”
However, most of the players are under pressure from those around them.
“Some people tell me that playing ball is a waste of time for a girl,” 17-year-old Sadia Lawali Kache said, adding that she and the other players on the national team are no different than other women.
“When I started playing, people called me a tomboy and said a girl shouldn’t play football,” said 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? I told them it was thanks to football.”
Aware of the slow growth of women’s soccer, 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, Sidi Ahmed, who is going to graduate from high school this year, said: “I’d like to say that people should let their children play. It will make them smart.”
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