Lama Elshawarby and the Egyptian women’s handball team: 'unseen champions' demanding to be heard

Spearheaded by their former captain, a group of players are campaigning for the same rights and sporting privileges as the men's side

Egypt’s women’s handball players have one dream: To finally be heard.

A group of the nation’s leading talents took to social media last week to shed light on what they believe has been a case of systemic neglect, injustice and empty promises that has prevented them from donning their national colours and flying the flag for Egypt internationally.

Under the hashtag ‘#wearethechampions’ (or ‘Ehna el abtal’ in Arabic), handball players belonging to the generations born in 1998 and 2000 launched a campaign urging the Egyptian Handball Federation to meet two specific demands.

The first is to create a women’s national first team that would allow them to represent their country. The second is to regulate and register proper contracts for the players at their clubs, to protect their rights and allow them to participate in a healthy transfer market that would raise the level of competition in the domestic league.

Spearheaded by former team captain Lama Elshawarby, goalkeeper of Al Ahly club, the campaign received the support of a host of Egyptian athletes such as squash legend Ramy Ashour, swimmer Farida Osman, squash former world No 1 Nour El Sherbini, footballers Sherif Ekramy, Osama Galal and Ahmed Magdy, and badminton Olympian Hadia Hosny.

According to Elshawarby, the players – who have represented Egypt at various age-groups, winning bronze at the 2015 Mediterranean U18 Championship in Tunisia, gold at the African Championship and placing ninth at the Worlds – have been fighting the federation for the past two years to fulfill their promise and form a national senior team for women.

Since they all turned 20, they can no longer compete for Egypt at youth events, and the lack of a senior team means their days of playing for their country are over.

“We are the sport that is supposed to be about equality and fairness,” Elshawarby and her teammates said in a video released on Instagram last Tuesday.

“We’re the players that no one wants to listen to. And despite us never being seen, we never gave less than our very best and are still going, because of our passion.

“We are a source of pride and the whole world is talking about us, yet they’re still not proud of us. Do you know who we are? We are [Egypt’s] handball players.

“We are the ones longing to represent our country but we cannot, because we are the only team sport that doesn’t have a women’s national first team.

"Nor do we have registered contracts that can protect us and allow us to express ourselves. We’ll say it again: We are the unseen champions.”

The players explained how their clubs have full control over their careers, and they all feel trapped because there is no transfer market.

“One final message: Please listen to us and solve our problems, instead of just blaming us,” the video, that has reached more than 43,000 views, concluded.

EHF board member, Mona Amin, who has been the main ally for the players within the federation and has been pushing for the creation of a women’s first team, presented the board with their demands last week, but their pleas were immediately rejected.

"We have two basic demands, but they keep focusing on only one of them, because they have no valid response for the second one," Elshawarby told The National.

“Their response to us wanting to create a women’s national handball first team was that because of our Middle Eastern culture, the girls eventually get engaged or married and stop playing the sport – which, in my opinion, is a very strange thing to say. It’s laughable really.

“I mean it’s 2020, and we’re still getting ridiculous statements like that? So our handball team lives in a Middle Eastern culture but our national basketball and volleyball first teams somehow live in the West?

“The head of the federation, [Hisham Nasr], said that we don’t have strong enough players to create a first team.

"If we aren’t good enough, why did you select us in the first place, and why did you promise that you’d create a first team if we achieved results?

"We achieved results and got nothing. What is being said within the federation is that they do not want to spend money on the women’s side.”

Egypt’s strong performances on the men’s side during the 1990s and early 2000s – their ‘Dream Team’ were semi-finalists at the World Championships in France in 2001 – saw handball soar in popularity in the country.

Last year, the Pharaohs were crowned world under-19 men’s champions for the first time.

The federation argues that the women are simply not good enough to create a competitive first team, yet they never invested in them to begin with and refuse to enforce fair conditions for them to thrive in the domestic league.

Nasr claims that he isn’t against the formation of women’s first team but that it has to be based on a “strong foundation”.

There are also several talented women that could have been part of a national first team.

Last year, Farah Elshazly was named the best goalkeeper of the group stage at the Women’s Youth (U18) World Championship in Poland. Two Egyptians, Marwa Eid Abdelmalek and Rehab Gomaa, play professionally abroad and are excelling at their respective French clubs.

A year-and-a-half ago, Gomaa posted on her official Facebook page that she has had enough of the EHF ignoring the female players, and will consider one of the several naturalisation offers she has received to represent another country internationally.

Her final plea was for “Egyptian society to start looking at women differently and to acknowledge that Egyptian women are capable of achieving great things just as much as their male counterparts”.

“The federation is dedicating their entire budget to hosting the 2021 Men’s World Championship and to our boys’ and men’s teams. But we also have demands that have nothing to do with money,” says Elsharawby, who points out that regulating the contracts at the club level wouldn’t cost them anything.

At a time where Egyptian women are at the forefront in several sports both locally and internationally, it is disgraceful how lopsided the attention given to the men compared to the women is within handball.

It is an Egyptian woman, like Osman, who has placed the country on the global swimming map. Two of Egypt’s three Olympic medallists at Rio 2016 were women – taekwondo’s Hedaya Malak and weightlifting’s Sara Ahmed.

The top three women in the world squash rankings are Egyptian – Raneem El Welily, Nouran Gohar and El Sherbini.

How can the EHF justify such blatant disregard for their responsibility of developing handball for both the men and the women equally?

If the players are indeed not strong enough, how do the EHF not realise that it is their job to unearth talent, develop it, fund it, and create the proper pathways for athletes to continue to progress, and not waste away after showing promising results at the junior level?

Pinning it all on social norms when Egypt has countless female athletes in other sports enjoying great success on the international stage is a weak excuse that shouldn’t be used in this day and age.

“We feel oppressed,” says Elshawarby. “We know we are capable of doing a lot of things, we are willing to invest everything to reach our goals, and we already achieved strong results and then we’re asked to stay home and not continue.

"They don’t want us. And many clubs are taking advantage of this situation by mistreating their players because they’re thinking, ‘Your own federation doesn’t see any value in you, so you should thank God that we’re keeping you around’. That’s what some of the girls are facing at the moment.

“The reason our boys’ youth team became world champions is because they invested in them. We went to a world championship without having a strength and conditioning coach with us.

“The men’s side get paid for every training camp they take part in, while we went to a training camp [a few years ago] knowing we weren’t getting a penny for the very same thing our male counterparts were getting paid for. And we still went there willingly.

"They receive supplements and meds, while we pay out of pocket for the very same thing. It’s really a big problem.”

The women’s handball players intend to continue with their campaign until their demands are met, and are encouraged by the support they’ve received online from famous figures.

They are aware that things might not change in time for their own generation, but are battling so the ones who come after them can get their fair chance.

“What the federation is doing right now could lead to the death of women’s handball in Egypt. I don’t want that to happen,” says Elshawaraby.