All her life, Elham Balatone wanted to play soccer—like her brothers, like boys on her street. But where she grew up, women could be flogged for wearing pants, never mind shorts. Now with the fall of President Omar al-Bashir, finally Sudan is fielding a women’s soccer team.
Balatone knew the “reasons” she should give up soccer: Muslim Sudan considers the uniform inappropriate; the sport is for men. She played anyway, wearing pants or layering leggings beneath shorts.
“There’s nothing in this world that I love more than soccer. Please let me play,” she begged her family. For years, she and other women played largely in the shadows on makeshift pitches.
Sudan is struggling with changing after three decades of dictatorship. Sudan’s government promoted a strict interpretation of Islamic law—one that harmed women.
Authorities have taken steps to roll back al-Bashir’s terrible legacy. The country overturned a “public order” law. The law allowed police to arrest women for dancing, wearing certain clothing, interacting with men who weren’t family members, or trading on the streets. Human rights defenders call the repeal a step in the right direction. However, many laws that oppress women remain in place.
Last fall, the world watched Sudanese women players at Khartoum Stadium. All were celebrating Sudan’s new women’s soccer league. Balatone played with her family’s blessing.
Some Muslim hardliners pushed back. Preacher AbdulHay Yousif and others call soccer part of the battle for Sudan’s character.
“What religion . . . would allow a Muslim woman to appear before men with her arms, legs, and some of her thighs exposed?” Yousif asked shortly after the league started. He warned that those responsible for women’s sports came “to destroy religion and morals.”
Critics oppose the hardline traditional views. They claim those who side with Yousif are using strict morality claims to target political enemies, control women, and hinder change.
Willow Berridge is a historian of the modern Islamic world. She believes Yousif hopes to provoke “moral panic” about gender roles. In other words, he isn’t really concerned about men’s sin. He wants to generate fear that even small changes will let women rise up over men in life and leadership.
On the field, most players wear leggings under their shorts. Many don’t cover their hair. They insist there’s no conflict between their faith and their sport.
But some Sudanese Muslims aren’t convinced. One woman says modesty keeps her from allowing her daughters to play sports in public.
In the midst of all the wrangling, some women say they just want to play soccer.