UAE women who kick sexism out of football

Fourty-eight young Emirati women participate in a ladies-only football tournament in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // As Amira Al Balooshi prepared for football training, she looked at the pitch where she was going to keep goal for the next couple of hours.

"Sometimes it's difficult for us Emirati women to play sport," said the 21-year-old who has been playing football for six years. "There's a lack of outdoor fields where only women can play."

She was one of 48 young Emirati women taking part in a football tournament at the Dome in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

Organised by Mariam Al Omaira, one of the founders of Irada Sport Development Company, a women-only league, the tournament featured double the number of players it started with in September 2011 - from 60 to 120.

"There wasn't enough attention put on Emirati women in sport," Ms Al Omaira said. "They won't let us play football in schools either, but we must allow girls to play competitively."

Because of the cultural sensitivity, Emirati women face difficulties in playing sport.

Although Ms Al Omaira has played football since she was a child, she still faces trouble with family members who claim football is a male-only sport. "They say 'you're going to get masculine because when you run a lot, you form muscles'," she said. "But that's not entirely true, you just get fit."

The sides of the pitch are covered to ensure the girls feel like they are in a safe environment.

"It's the only place we have to play," said Fatima Wajdi, a 24-year-old Emirati who has been interested in football for 15 years. "It's healthy for us and I'm just trying to stay fit."

The passion for the sport is strongly felt among her fellow players. "When I play, I feel happy," said Noor Al Amri. "We don't care what people say, we're confident in ourselves, we can do anything men do."

The tournament also included an individual competition. "The girls can compete on ball-control by getting the ball between a set of cones," Ms Al Omaira said.

Next year, she hopes to get Irada Sport Development Company involved in tennis, volleyball, martial arts and kickboxing.

"I hope one day I'll be able to coach an Emirati women's football team," she said. "It's hard to find Emirati players, though, but we're very community-based so hopefully we can change that."

In the meantime, the girls are playing their part in their bid to change traditional preconceptions.

"Women can do anything in this world," said Ms Al Balooshi, who swims and plays football, volleyball and handball. "Nothing is impossible. We're not less than men, believe me."