• Lydia Kiros

Somali Women’s Basketball Team Play in the Face of Hostility

In Somalia, it is not only the blistering heat women have to overcome to pursue their love for playing basketball, it is also the scorn of their families and the threats of attack. Nevertheless, Somali women playing for the women’s national team have not allowed these obstacles to stop them from playing the game they love. The women gather in compounds, dribbling basketballs in their colorful headscarves as their female coaches look on.


(Photo: Reuters/Feisal Omar)


Even though the women have decided to play on despite suffering possible backlash, they’ve created a routine to protect their safety. The women play only in compounds behind high concrete walls which shields them from unwelcome onlookers, especially those who may attack them. Unfortunately the threat of attack by gunmen who believe women should not play sports publicly is their somber reality. Fardawsa Omar Ahmed, 20, a university graduate who also plays volleyball and football shed light on the danger the women face. “We cannot openly say we are going to play. We put our playing clothes and shoes in school bags and carry them that way to the field and we pretend we are going to school or university,” she told Reuters. Her family used to discourage her from playing but have now come to accept it, she said.

One of the team’s coaches, Suham Hassan Sobran, 40, used to play as a child before civil war broke out in the country in 1991. She resumed playing in 2009 when the Islamist Al Shabaab insurgency still controlled large parts of the city. Now she along with her two friends train about 30 other women on a court enclosed in Mogadishu’s Hamar Jajab district office. There is a police checkpoint nearby and such checkpoints are often a target for Al Shabaab. Though driven out of the city in 2011 they still stage frequent attacks. The court’s gate features a painting of a woman playing basketball, decorated with slogans promoting good sportsmanship.


(Photo: Reuters/Feisal Omar)

Another one of the coaches, Faduma Ali Abdirahman, 39, who is now a mother of six, once played on Somalia’s national team, traveling to Djibouti and Uganda for matches. However the women receive no funding. Whenever they play matches, the trainers put money together to buy a cheap cup as a prize.

Unfortunately, playing against the threat of danger isn’t anything new for Somalia’s women teams, but that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the military coup in 1991, which led to a decade of lawlessness, women’s basketball actually thrived under Siad Barre’s government. Though a dictator brutal to his opponents, he attempted to modernize the country and promoted women’s rights. The women’s national team played at the Pan Arab Games and travelled to Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco.

When the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) backed by militias controlled Mogadishu, they labeled sport as a “satanic act” and issued an order in 2006 prohibiting women from playing sports, including basketball. Somalis caught watching games on television were arrested and girls couldn’t go to stadiums to watch basketball, handball, or track and field, let alone compete in them. A few months later the ICU was deposed, but the militant Islamist group Al Shabaab, which has connections to al Qaeda, still fought to impose its own interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, on the country. Many Somali athletes had been threatened by members of Al Shabaab who see sport as an “un-Islamic” activity, according to Duran Ahmed Farah, the Somali National Olympic Committee (NOC) senior Vice President for international relations in 2011. They proved to be even more extreme than the courts, sometimes going as far as killing Somalis they caught involved in sports. “The threat is always there— there are people who will see girls playing sport as a devil’s thing and they will not allow it,” Farah said in an interview with CNN.

In Somalia, basketball is one of the most popular sports among women. The country’s first national female basketball team was created in the early 1970s but had not participated at an international tournament since 1987. The Islamist ban in addition to challenges brought on by a lack of sponsorship and destroyed facilities, have prevented the development of the sport in the past years.


(Photo: Reuters/Feisal Omar)


In 2011, the team achieved a remarkable feat at the 2011 Arab Games when they beat Qatar, the host nation. However, the team had to prepare for the Games in the bullet-ridden police headquarters in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. The women would train for two to three hours a day, watched by security officers ordered to protect them against religious militants targeting women playing the sport.


“These girls are brave: in that kind of environment they’re still playing their sport, the sport they like,” Farah said. Indeed, the women’s bravery is an indication of their passion for the sport and the love they have for the game. They dream of one day starting women’s teams all over Somalia.

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