Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


The beautiful game under siege: women’s football in the West Bank

'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.

November 9, 2017
8 min read

This October, 11 women from the UK and Germany travelled to the occupied West Bank of Palestine on a tour of friendship, solidarity and football. The motto of the ‘Freedom Through Football’ tour, was ‘we will share your story’ –  our promise to share with the wider world the truth of life in Palestine and in particular to highlight the story of women who play (and excel) at football in a country where football for women is far from a cultural norm.

This recent tour is part of our growing story of friendship and solidarity between Republica Internationale (Leeds) and the Easton Cowgirls and Cowboys (Bristol) with Palestine. Our players have been travelling to the West Bank since 2007, with the women’s teams most recently visiting in 2014 and producing the ‘Balls, Barriers and Bulldozers’ film. Earlier in the summer, Diyar Academy had even travelled to the UK and met us on home turf.  

Repaulicow and Hebron University Football Teams

Heading back to the West Bank this year joined by friends from Frau Dortebecker (Hamburg, Germany), we wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation in the West Bank.

If we’re honest, we had mixed success on the pitch. We won games against Hebron University, Beit Sahour and the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). However, when it came to matching up against Sareyyet Ramallah and Diyar Academy (two teams that spend most of their time fighting each other to be crowned champions of the women’s league in the West Bank) we didn’t fare so well, with the games ending 8-2 and 13-6 respectively.

Football pitch in Um Al Khair with settlement houses in the background

But, luckily for us, it’s not all about winning. Whether we were catching up with old friends from the Diyar tour, or being schooled by the quick, clever feet of Ramallah, each game gave us the incredible opportunity to meet some of the best footballers in Palestine and to better understand the challenges they face.

Many spoke of the difficulties playing football in a country where it’s still a ‘men’s game.’ “It’s hard to be a woman and play football in Palestine,” one Diyar player told us, “some people think that women shouldn’t play football, but we are challenging that and things are changing.”

It was clear that things were changing, too. Hebron University had played their first ever game of women’s football in 2014 as part of our first trip to the West Bank. Over the past 3 years, they’ve been playing matches against other teams in the West Bank and making connections with other women footballers across Palestine.  

Others spoke of their frustration that women’s football is just not seen as on the same level as men’s football. This was something that was all too familiar to many of us, much to the surprise to many of the players we met.

Rubble of community centre in Um Al Khair demolished in 2014

However, the fight for equality on the pitch was often cast in the shadow of a wider fight for freedom in Palestine. For the women we met, the occupation created significant barriers to their ability to play where, and when, they want. Every checkpoint we passed was a reminder of the oppressive restrictions faced by Palestinians every day.

Before our first game against Diyar Academy, we travelled to Jubbet Al-Dhib, a village near Bethlehem. This incredible community, headed up by a women’s committee, had invited us to celebrate the delivery of shipment of materials to rebuild a healthcare facility in the village. However, as the delivery arrived, so did 8 soldiers from the Israeli Defence Force and two settlers from the nearby settlement.

We were questioned and asked for our passports, as the IDF soldiers absent-mindedly fiddled with the safety on their guns and the settlers took photographs of everyone. Our hosts, however, were determined to continue with their promise of breakfast. So we sat, between the village and the IDF, eating fresh olives, zaatar covered bread and grapes. After a lengthy stand-off, we were offered our passports back on the condition that we left the village immediately. We left, frustrated and confused.

Shots on goal in Um Al Khair

We later discovered that the IDF had confiscated the building materials and the lorry that they had been transported on. The village would have to start fundraising for the health clinic’s renovations from scratch.    

After our match with Diyar, we talked to some of the players about what had happened to us in Jubbet Al-Dhib. What had seemed pretty unique event to us was evidently an everyday occurrence for our Palestinian friends. This type of harassment was such a prevalent part of everyday life for Palestinians across the West Bank that it barely registered as an event.

Off the pitch, we also spent time in villages in the South Hebron hills, many of which had been threatened with demolition by the Israeli government. For two of us, one visit – to the Bedouin community of Um Al Khair – was particularly special. Last time they visited, the village had just been devastated by a demolition, the result of just one of many Israeli demolition orders placed on the community in the last few years.  

This time, we were able to return for tea in the rebuilt community centre, before heading to the dusty football field for a kickabout. We found out that the difficulties faced by the community were ongoing. An ever growing and imposing Israeli settlement – Carmel – is unfortunately all too literally, just a stone’s throw away. Residents in the village explained how the settlers throw stones at them whilst they are sleeping, just one example of the constant harassment they are subjected to.

The starkness of the divide between Um Al Khair and the settlement was all too clear. Watching the sun go down over the built, half-built, and demolished homes of Um Al Khair, the imposing wealth and privilege of the cream and red houses of the settlement was impossible to ignore.

Eventually, the football was booted over the 10-foot metal fence into the no-mans-land between the village and the settlement. As it bounced towards the well-manicured lawns of Carmel we knew this was one ball we weren’t going to get back.

Republicauw team members by the separation wall

As teams, we believe that football is about more than, well, football. Football has the power – and in some cases – a duty to challenge oppression, unite communities and create space for meaningful social change. At the very minimum, it starts a conversation.

Football gave us a unique insight into what life is like for Palestinians in the West Bank. What we saw, as much in the beautiful sports halls of Sareyyet Ramallah as the dusty playing field in Um Al Khair, was an incredible resilience to the daily aggressions of life under occupation.  

Whilst football won’t remedy the injustices of the occupation, our experiences of playing football in the West Bank will hopefully start a conversation. We will share their story, and stand in solidarity with our friends in the West Bank, fighting for their rights to play, and stay, in their homeland.    

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright