Beating the wall: West Bank’s women footballers break down barriers

From sexism to occupation, Palestinian girls and women confront formidable challenges just to play

Players of the Ramallah women's football team, Sareryyet Ramallah, before a training session at the Majed Asad stadium in Al Bireh, Palestine. Photograph: Giacomo Sini

A cold wind is blowing in Ramallah this evening. At the entrance to the football field of the Friends School, a vendor sells hot coffee while the footballers warm up by running on the artificial grass.

“It’s difficult for a young woman to play football in a sexist society,” says Leen Khoury (16), a striker for Sareyyet Ramallah, walking back towards the bench. “That’s true, and we also experience the occupation here,” adds Jessica Salameh (22), captain of the team. Today they play a friendly match with the Football Stars Academy men’s team in Ramallah.

Although globally the growth of women’s football has allowed girls and women to gain space and visibility in the sport, there is still a long way to go before equality is achieved. This is especially true for the young women of the occupied West Bank.

Doing sport [elsewhere] is normal, but not here

—  Natal Bahbah, 16-year-old player for Sareeyet Ramallah

Leaving the main courtyard of the Dar Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, you cross a narrow passage, behind a bloom of roses, to reach the sports hall where the players of another women’s team, Diyar Bethlehem, hold their training sessions. “Today we will have a mixed training session, the youngest, under-16s, with the girls from the first team,” says Marian Bandak (33), Diyar’s manager. The last players arrive and the warm-up begins. “In this way we prepare the youngest to move up to a higher level,” says Farah Zacharia (35), who trains the women’s teams.

READ MORE

One in Bethlehem, the other in Ramallah, Diyar and Sareyyet are the most important clubs in Palestinian women’s football. There is a sporting rivalry between the clubs, but for these young women, the challenges are played out on other levels and they are faced together.

Many players who grew up in the ranks of their respective teams go on to wear the national team jersey of Palestine. Among them is Loreen Tanas (24), who is returning to training with Diyar today after a six-month break. Having just finished her shift at the restaurant where she works, she runs up the stairs and opens the door of the flat where she lives with her family, on one of Bethlehem’s main arteries.

Diyar Bethlehem player Loreen Tanas at home preparing her bag for training. Photograph: Giacomo Sini

Her mother is tidying the kitchen and on the large table in the livingroom there’s a pan of kafta. “Ever since I was a little girl, I played football with the other kids in the street,” says Tanas, sitting on the sofa next to her father. “I first joined a handball team and in 2012 Marian noticed my skills and invited me to play football for Diyar.”

Bandak at that time played for and captained the Palestinian national team. “At the beginning I had to face a lot of prejudice because football is considered a sport for boys, and we girls couldn’t wear shorts,” Tanas recalls. As she talks, Ibrahim, her father, looks at her and nods: “As parents we have always supported her choice.”

“It is a problem of mentality here in Palestine,” says Tanas. “I accept myself for who I am, but in many cases the pressure of male society makes girls lose their self-confidence.”

In 2015, Tanas made her national team debut. “International tournaments have strengthened our character,” she says. Coming face to face with female footballers from other countries “has served to make us even more determined to follow our dreams”. But even with these achievements, life remains complex. Tanas not only plays for Diyar and the national team, but also works and studies. “I am graduating in sports science, so that I can continue to work in sport, not only as a footballer. I would like to go to Europe, maybe Spain,” she says.

In the indoor sports hall the balls rumble as they hit the wall and the crossbar. One after the other, the Diyar players form triangles and take turns in challenging the goalkeeper, firing in powerful shots on goal. No ball enters the net. “No goal!” shouts the goalkeeper, Cynthia Botto (21) triumphantly. She is on the ground after saving Tanas’s last shot. Tanas takes the ball back and smiles as she knocks the ball into the net.

Players with Diyar Bethlehem training at the Dar Al-Kalima University sports hall in Bethlehem, Palestine. Photograph: Giacomo Sini

Bandak follows training from the seats, wearing a Barcelona jersey. “As a manager I also have to organise trips abroad. It’s complex with visas and [having to travel to] Jordan to fly out,” she says. But she has no doubt it’s worth it: “Next week the girls fly to Germany for an exchange organised by the city of Cologne, it will be a great experience!”

While caring for her young son takes priority, Bandak says football has always been her life. “When I played I put football before everything,” she say with a laugh, her eyes fixed firmly on the players going through their paces. “I used to skip exams to play! We all did that, our generation had to [create the opportunities]. We used to cry when we missed a training session. Now it’s different, the younger ones experience a different situation.”

In Ramallah, just before the match, the Sareyyet players gather on the sidelines to listen to the instructions of their coach, Claudie Salameh (33), also a former national team captain. She gives the final directions with broad hand gestures, her eyes are full of energy.

Players of the Diyar Bethlehem women's first team prepare for an indoor friendly against a men's side from the same city in Palestine. Photograph: Giacomo Sini

Natal Bahbah (16) arrived at Sareyyet in September 2022, having previously played for Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem. To attend training, she comes by taxi three times a week to Ramallah from the Arab quarter where she lives with her family. “It’s at least an hour and a half each way, unless Israel closes the checkpoints – then, no training,” she says.

“In the morning I have school,” Bahbah adds, taking a sip of water. “Every time, I have to cross the [West Bank separation] wall, pass the checkpoints in Qalandia or Hizma. Doing sport [elsewhere] is normal, but not here.”

Leen Khoury has part of her family in Ramallah, where she studies, but she also lives in East Jerusalem. She is a close friend of Bahbah’s: they were on the same team before they went to Sareyyet. As always, they will ride home together tonight.

Leen Khouri, right, a player for Sareyet Ramallah and the Palestine under-16 girls' national team as she awaits the arrival of a taxi that will take her home to Jerusalem after passing through Israel's separation wall. Photograph: Giacomo Sini

“Many of us often participate in international tournaments ... [such as] the Norway Cup or with the national team,” says Khoury. In April, she and Bahbah flew to Vietnam with the rest of the Palestinian under-17 team for the Asian Cup qualifiers – of which the finals will be played next year in Indonesia. “Over there,” says Khoury of the trip to Vietnam, “they asked us if we were from Pakistan, because they didn’t think Palestine was a country! This is also a result of the distorted narrative of Israel. And for us, travelling is always very complicated.”

It’s time for the match. In the first 10 minutes, the game is all in the Football Stars Academy men’s half of the pitch; the young women play hard in attack and put them under pressure. “This is the only official pitch where we can train in Ramallah,” says Taima Osama (16), without taking her eyes off the game. “All the teams come here and sometimes we have to go elsewhere,” she adds, sitting on the bench wearing the number 10.

A chase for possession in the friendly match between Sareyet Ramallah and a men's selection of the Football Stars Academy of Rammalh at The Friends Stadium in Al Bireh. Al Bireh, Palestine. Photograph: Giacomo Sini

For Ammar Jalayta, the national team coach, Osama is one of the best players around. With a deep breath the teenager resumes her story. “Sometimes we train at the Faisal Al-Husseini stadium in Al-Ram, which is right next to the wall. It happens that the Israeli military fire tear gas grenades on to the field, just to prevent us from training and sometimes the neighbours throw bottles at us.” She stops following the game for a moment and looks us in the eyes: “I could tell you many of these stories.” The Fifa-affiliated Palestinian Football Association reported that on March 30th, in the same stadium, an official match was interrupted by tear gas from Israeli forces.

At the final whistle the friendly ends in a 1-0 win to the young men of the Football Stars Academy. Salameh, however, compliments her team, who played well throughout the match. While the other players get into the team minivan, Khoury and Bahbah take their seats in a taxi. In the queue at the Qalandia checkpoint the two friends eat the dinner they brought from home and engage in banter.

A boy approaches the car, selling piles of packaged candyfloss, but his voice is drowned out by the siren of an ambulance trying to move forward in the traffic jam. “We’re used to it,” Khoury says bitterly. At the checkpoint, silence falls, but in a moment the barrier opens. The car now heads for home, lights shining on the motorway. Khoury listens to the music and Bahbah closes her eyes.