North Africa, West Asia

Why are there no women in Iraq’s football stadiums?

Iraqis are suffocated by a rampant militarization and hypermasculinity.

Nabil Salih
7 January 2019

Picture courtesy of author. All rights reserved

In the German city of Gelsenkirchen, a female football fan complained of sexual abuse during a Bundesliga Match between FC Schalke 04 and 1. FC Nürnberg. DW reported that, "The woman claims a male supporter repeatedly harassed her, touching and slapping her behind and attempting to open her bra during the match at the Veltins Arena on Saturday."

Another incident of harassment was reported in the northern city of Hamburg where a group of Dynamo Dresden traveling supporters held up two sexist banners brazenly ridiculing female ultras of home side FC St. Pauli.

Late last month in Iraq, Al-Shorta SC faced Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in week 9 of the Iraqi Premier League. The Al-Shaab Stadium -the venue where FC Schalke had suffered a 2-0 defeat to the Iraqi national team in a world cup preparation match in 1986- was already almost packed over an hour before kick-off. It was a crucial match for both teams' race to climb to the top of the IPL table.

In a packed 34,200-seater, I was searching for any female presence among the attendance, to no avail.

Unlike what pictures from the so-called ‘golden-era’ of Iraq often posted by Iraqi pages on social media show, the presence of women on the terraces today remains a rare sight; almost non-existent.

When asked about the absence of female football fans from Iraq's stadiums, Naba Shakir Iraqi women's national team and Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya defender says, "In my opinion, harassment on the terraces or at the gates is just one of many reasons that makes us reluctant to attend football matches in Iraq. The main reason is the uncivilized behavior of many. With all due respect to those who create a beautiful atmosphere, but many others have caused several problems in football stadiums during the recent years."

Unfortunate incidents have frequently overshadowed Iraq's football scene in recent years, such as pitch invasions, vandalizing and physical assault against players and referees.

However, there were times when football stadiums weren't only occupied by men, and when women would normally attend a football match.

Iraqi football writer Hassanin Mubarak explains that "women did attend football matches but usually the big events, like the 1966 Arab Cup and the 1979 Gulf Cup. The Iraqi footballer and national team captain Husham Atta Ajaj remembered one game which was played in the morning during the 1966 Arab Cup between Iraq and Bahrain and he stated there were no empty seats because they were occupied by female students who had come to watch the game. It was the same at the 1979 Gulf Cup."

Since then, Iraqi society has been ravaged by a handful of wars, a decade of genocidal sanctions and a US-led invasion that resulted in the emergence of armed groups, a rapid growth in extremism and a deterioration of both the economic and social conditions in the country – a combination that led to an increase in the restrictions of women's freedom of movement and mobility.

"People's mentality has changed, and all the wars and years of violence have played a role. The Faith Campaign undertaken by the regime in the 90s also impacted women's status in the country, it was the time when more women started to wear headscarves and conservative attire," says Iraqi author and journalist Aya Mansour.

The Faith Campaign was launched by the Ba'athist regime in early 1990s embracing a conservative religious ideology, and it resulted in the closure of bars and nightclubs, the building of more mosques and adding the Takbir to the Iraqi flag.

Recalling her experience in Al Basra International Stadium, Mansour who attended a friendly match between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in February says: "Everyone watched and cheered, I felt like our presence was unnoticed, and when the national anthem was played with over 60,000 fans singing Mautini, I had an indescribably beautiful feeling I wished could last. There were some hundred women seated in a 'family stand' that night, but maybe because that was a long-awaited and well organized event."

Apart from a few cases, there female fans have been absent from the stands during domestic games for the past fifteen-years.

In Al-Shaab Stadium, as players from both teams took to the pitch to start their warm up, a group of Al-Jawiya fans started chanting a rather unusual pro- Popular Mobilization Forces chants, an umbrella organization of infamous Iran-backed militias, while one guy waved a large PMF flag.

A few dozen fans repeated the chant but the majority seemed neither interested nor bothered. It quickly faded away, but indicated what could be one of many reasons why women no longer attend football matches in Iraq.

"No one can deny the PMF role in the fight against ISIS militants, but we should not forget the atrocities committed by its members against innocent civilians in liberated areas," Mansour, who labeled the chants as 'wrongdoing' says.

The PMF, known for its conservative views rather than its support for women's rights, may resemble a holy salvation army to some Iraqis, to many others they are a mere façade of widely-feared outlaw militias no different from their predecessors.

"We (Iraqis) have a fear of returning to those days (of 'civil war'). I had to wear a head scarf in 2006. Any girl who wouldn’t comply with a conservative dress code enforced by both Sunni and Shia armed groups could be killed," Mansour adds.

Picture courtesy of author. All rights reserved.

In the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and especially in the period between 2005-2008, extremist Sunni and Shia groups transformed Baghdad into a war-zone, terrorizing local communities through a rampant sectarian fighting that resulted in scores of civilian deaths and a significant demographic shift.

Iraqis are suffocated by a rampant militarization and hypermasculinity, whether in the form of armed men at checkpoints and street plaques bearing patriotic mottoes such as "All The People Are Militants!", to toy guns and propaganda music videos. If similar chants continue to resonate on the terraces the result could be many empty seats in the near future.

Nowadays Baghdad is, as Iraqi sociologist Zahra Ali described it, "a city of men" where poor female beggars "are the only women hanging around the streets, as most women are merely passing by, driving, entering or leaving a shop, shopping at markets or siting in family dedicated spaces of restaurants, coffee or ice-cream shops. The rest of the capital’s public outdoor spaces are occupied by men, and armed male soldiers and police officers stand at every intersection."

"Young women also fear their reputation would be ‘spoiled’ for entering a male-dominated public place. A visit to a football stadium could end up with them being labeled as 'no good' by our conservative society," Mansour adds.

Today, a significant number of conservative households forbid their female members from watching TV, going out or finishing their education and -in some cases- young women are even being offered as tribute to settle tribal disputes.

The impact of years of gender segregation are also seen in public behavior – on streets suffocated by never-ending traffic jams, it is not unusual to see a taxi driver sticking his head out the window to stare at women passing by while Quran blares at full volume on the radio, or a young man leaning forward to have a better view of a woman sitting in the car next to his.

"I wish I could attend a football match in Baghdad, but I think I would feel like I am under an indirect threat rather than being comfortable," Mansour explains.

It is unlikely that we will see a tangible improvement in the status of Iraqi women when peaceful protesters are met with live-bullets for demanding uncontaminated drinking water, or when young women are massacred for simply choosing to live their lives in the way they want, and especially when corrupt reactionary parties and notorious paramilitary factions are dominating the country's political scene and public spaces.

The Baghdad derby ended with a 1-1 draw.

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