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Women and Sports

Sports is masculinised - particularly in the mainstream media but in other spaces as well. What women's rights concerns does this prevalent state of affairs raise?

By Kathambi Kinoti

Egypt’s national football team recently won the 2010 Cup of African Nations in Angola. The celebrations back home were intense; fans partied throughout the night. The Pharaohs were warriors who had redeemed Egypt’s honour after being defeated by their long time rivals Algeria in the qualifiers for the World Cup. It goes without saying that these heroes were the country’s men’s team. What about Egypt’s women’s football team? It is certainly not as celebrated.

Real women?

The sports arena in the mainstream media is populated by representations of sportsmen and male spectators. There is a lot of attention on the 2010 football World Cup which will be held from June 2010 in South Africa. There is not as much attention on the 2012 Women’s World Cup that will be held in Germany. With the exception of a few sports where women have some presence – tennis, figure skating, netball, athletics - the domain of sports is overwhelmingly masculinised. Even where sportswomen get media attention, there is often a sub-text: they must demonstrate that they are ‘still feminine.’ Hence the magazine cover featuring South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya in a feminine dress and makeup soon after her ‘womanhood’ was disputed by a fellow athlete. Saida Ali is the Executive Director of the Kenya-based Young Women’s Leadership Institute, an organisation that sponsors a football club known as Binti Football Club, for girls from the disadvantaged area of Kawangware in Nairobi. Writing in the Southern African Media Diversity Journal about one player – a girl who has chosen to play football regardless of the perception others have about her – Ali says: “She knows first hand what it means to have a body perceived as not feminine enough, yet to still be in that sexual patriarchal gaze.”

Femininity and masculinity are socially constructed, and sports is an area in which these constructions are powerfully cemented. These constructions make it difficult for sports women whose pursuits, passion or profession require the stamina, speed and muscle tone expected (in popular opinion) of men.

Men’s game?

The masculinisation of sports means that women are often actively discouraged from taking up or excelling in sports. Binti FC is made up of disadvantaged girls from Kawangware, a poor quarter of Nairobi. In an interview with AWID Ali says that when they first began, there was intense opposition, particularly from Muslim religious leaders. “On one occasion,” she says, “A local imam interrupted a match. He stormed onto the pitch and grabbed the ball, forcing the match to stop.” His problem? The girls’ football attire was ‘immodest’ and moreover, he thought that their time was better spent on ‘more womanly’ pursuits. “Girls get home from school and are expected to help cook their family’s evening meal and wash the dishes afterwards,” says Ali. “But boys are free to play while their sisters cook and clean. Yet every child has a right to play.” Binti FC has broken the mould by demonstrating that sports are as important to girls as they are to boys. According to Ali, there has been a gradual acceptance of the girl footballers in the community, and even some pride when the team won the local league title.

Women’s participation as interested and knowledgeable spectators is invalidated when they are portrayed as being interested in sports only to the extent of admiring sportsmen’s bodies, or performing service roles – providing drinks and meals - to keep men happy during sports events, or being football widows. Football widows are women whose husbands are emotionally and physically distant during football seasons. Saeanna Chingamuka writes in the Southern African Media Diversity Journal: “Since female fans are not ‘pure’ it is easy to dismiss them and re-establish the existing gender order of soccer as a masculinised space.”

Not only are women not regarded as genuine fans or spectators, sometimes they are not regarded as worthy sports journalists. Fungai Machirori writing in the same journal quotes a veteran journalist who claims that “women do not have the ghost of a clue about what is happening on the pitch during a football match,” and that “You’d never trust a woman with something as important as a football result.” This prejudiced journalist gets it wrong on several counts but expresses common misconceptions. Sports to him is a space for men.

Women’s rights advocacy

Sports is employed as an inroad into certain communities or issues, or both. Binti FC is a football club, but it is also a club where girls and young women access information on sexual and reproductive health rights and services. Saida Ali says: “In a locality where unplanned teenage pregnancies are common, the Binti girls are proud that none of them has got pregnant while in the team, and this is their reputation in the community.”

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa will not only be a football extravaganza; it will indirectly bring with it economic opportunities (and women’s rights challenges) including in the field of sex work. Women’s rights groups are already doing advocacy to prevent the trafficking of women from neighbouring countries into South Africa. They are also raising awareness about protection from HIV infection and violence against women.

Popular attitudes about women and sports contradict women’s rights on several levels: girls have a right to play – an inherent children’s right. Girls and women are entitled to equality and freedom from discrimination on the basis of gender. Sports is one arena where the long overdue fight for women’s rights has not yet fully been waged.