‘We can!’ – women’s football in the Occupied West Bank | A summary

Gerd von der Lippe
University of South-Eastern Norway

This article investigates female football players from Ramallah in The West Bank in Palestine. The players are presented as public actors in a larger political context. The purpose is to give them a voice to narrate their personal stories, not as victims of a disenfranchised country, but, rather, as subjects of dignity. The focus is on national identity, specifically the importance of the footballers’ individual and collective memories of having Palestine identities. The problem of living an ‘ordinary life’ in a violent context remains under-researched. The troubled status of their nation forms a backdrop of their personal sense of national identity in tandem with their specific position as females in a strongly male- dominated game.

The focus here is on their stories, and I will highlight and discuss the following issues:

      • How do players experience football as a way of normalising crisis during occupation?
      • How do players experience the sense of honour when playing for Palestine?

Palestine has never been an independent state. After the British withdrawal in 1948, the year the Israeli State was established, came Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe. In 1994, the Oslo process led to the creation of the Palestine Authority (PA), but not to the creation of an independent State as intended.

Sport arguably plays a crucial role in the construction and confirmation of national identities. In the autumn of 2008, a first league women’s football championship was held. The 17 players of Ramallah who were interviewed, have all competed in national and international competitions. Their highest value is not placed on winning abroad, but on the ability to travel abroad at all.

It is well documented that even today football is still seen as a male sport in nearly all countries in terms of money, leaders and media attention. The Ramallah female footballers were in 2014 and 2015, when I interviewed them, the best women’s club on the West Bank. The Bank of Palestine sponsors the best of them. I conducted, recorded and transcribed the qualitative interviews.

Is football a way of normalizing crisis? One player speaks about her father:

He is so proud, whereas my mother was skeptical at the beginning. Before a match he often says: “Play football, enjoy the game and forget the occupation for a while”. I love that.

The Israeli occupation creates a lot of trouble for citizens of the West Bank, although difficult everyday experiences might be replaced by a short-term feeling of freedom when playing football. The father does not seem to regard women’s football as a heretic practice, but rather as a break with the ordinary order of football as a man’s game and producing a new common sense.

Another player says:

It’s hard to show and express our feelings in general, because of the occupation, restrictions and limited opportunities. So, we have to show the world what Palestine can do through and in football.

The term, Palestine, is not on any ordinary map, so for these women their job is to make the world not forget their soil, nation and country. One player, born in 1999, says:

The Israelis are trying to play with our feelings and think that we will go down, but we are able to think. We cannot manage (they are believing), but we can! Whatever they did or do, we will not go down and we will defend our land.

Actors’ agency may transform meanings of routines to overcome political crisis they cannot control. She seems to remind herself of her nationhood in daily football routines.

How do the players experience the sense of honour when playing for Palestine?

I scored a goal from the defence-line. That was my first goal on the national team. It was just fantastic. I felt an internal joy, difficult to express. Since then I am called the “sniper” – a soldier who always hits his goal; “madfa’jeyeh” [Arab expression]. On scoring I could see nothing. My score changed the game (…) and all players rushed towards me and gave me a hug and I went down on the field with all the others upon me. What a feeling! I will never forget.

This reaction is a typical way of behaving in football after a feeling of success with team-mates. But to be nicknamed ‘the sniper’ was uniquely linked to the political situation in Palestine and her personal experience.

3-4 years ago, we played in a tournament in Amman (Jordan). We won the championship. What a wonderful feeling of winning, a fantastic report in the media, and most of all, Palestine won and the name of our country became visible.

She is afraid that the world is forgetting the existence of Palestine. Israel denies Palestine an independent state, and the United States is a supporter of Israel.

This young woman has a dream:

Our national women’s football team is going to be so famous that our country, Palestine is on the world map of sport. Then, everyone gets a feeling of who we are and what we are.

The joy of female football and the kudos of playing internationally, contrasts with the frustrated nationhood of occupation, colonization and the feeling of surveillance almost everywhere. In this condition ‘the ordinary’ gives such purchase, because it allows concrete experiences linked to distant aspirations. Despite the various possible Israeli military actions, Palestinians continue to steadfast love their sport, that gives them pride and dignity as legitimate inhabitants of a land. Thus, footballers have created a form of symbolic capital, and specific strategies of responding both individually and collectively to adversity in the occupation’s many different manifestations.

Copyright @ Gerd von der Lippe 2021

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