Three young Emirati women have launched a unique behind-closed-doors soccer league for girls who love to play but fear breaching cultural and traditional boundaries. The burgeoning league meets the demand for both sport and social interaction. Eugene Harnan reports
Salama Al Muhairi is developing her skills as a footballer. She only played at school, so is still learning the game. But now she has a chance to boost her abilities.
"I know more about the game in general," says the 20-year-old. "I have no football experience. I wasn't really interested in it but I have come to develop in it ."
So have other women, thanks to the women-only sports leagues that Ms Al Muhairi and two colleagues have started in the capital.
They hope to meet the growing demand for women's football behind closed doors, respecting cultural sensibilities.
The women launched Irada Sport Development Company after one of the three young co-founders, Mariam Al Omaira, could not find any women-only recreational football leagues in Abu Dhabi.
"There are some girls that don't mind playing in front of men," says Ms Al Omaira, 26, who works for the government. "But there is a huge percentage of Emirati women who can't play in front of men because of cultural reasons."
Schools and universities field women's teams but the games end when the students graduate.
"Those in the community who want to play the sport after university don't have a place to go," says Ms Al Omaira. "It's all open and there isn't really a place for the sport to be developed."
The organisation's pilot league had six teams face off once a week in a dome at the Officers' Club from October to December. "We wanted to know if people could be OK with it," says Ms Al Omaira.
Ms Al Omaira, Ms Al Muhairi and another friend, Fatima Al Yousef, brainstormed and came up with the idea of a company that would support women in sport.
Their message was spread and the women found 84 players to compete in six teams.
"They all played in university and they were all graduates," says Ms Al Omaira.
With the growth of the group, it will launch its website, irada.ae, on Wednesday. There are also plans to start a bigger league in October.
Ms Al Omaira says that part of the impetus for the company was the state of the nation's health.
"There are high levels of obesity and diabetes and we want to encourage a fit, healthy lifestyle," she explains.
The message of Irada, the Arabic word for determination, is simple, adds Ms Al Omaira.
"We stressed the fact we can play football within the boundaries of culture and tradition. Its a closed field - no men, no media," she says.
Deem Al Bassam, 26, the captain of the league's Dubai team, believes there is a massive potential for women's sports leagues in the region.
She started playing at school in Saudi Arabia. When she moved to the UAE 10 years ago, she played with her sister at the Dubai Ladies Club.
"A lot of people have asked a lot of times" about a place to play, says Ms Al Bassam. "We had the people who had the potential to play or have it as a hobby but didn't have a location ... or people who wanted to play under circumstances of religion and culture."
Sara Falaknaz, 25, has played in two tournaments organised by Irada.
"What the girls are trying to do is to find a solution for the people who love the sport but can't practise it in public," she says.
A tournament last month featured eight teams, while a charity competition took place in Sharjah in December.
"Football is a common universal language between most of the people in the world, and to us it was more like a getaway from the normal stresses of work and study," says Ms Falaknaz. "It was not about only friendly competition, but also a social event in which you can come and meet different players from different parts of the country."
The next tournament is scheduled for May 18-19 at a location to be decided. There will be a Euro2012 theme and players will register individually, then pick which "country" to play for.
"If they wish to be part of the English, Spanish or Dutch team they can be," Ms Al Omaira says.