Traditional religious beliefs stand in the way of girls passionate about the game and seeking to go professional.

TAMALE, GHANA — One Wednesday afternoon in July 2010, Latifah Suleimana, a then 13-year-old junior high school student in Ghana’s northern region, was in tears as she decided to leave her father’s house, indefinitely.

She had just been drafted onto a female football team that was chosen to represent her region in a tournament, but her father raised objections. He went so far as to insult the coaches for allowing a girl to play football. That day, Latifah hastily packed her belongings and moved in with one of her coaches, who is her mother’s distant relative.

Latifah’s father’s opposition to her football dreams did not start that day. Months earlier, he had sent her away to serve as a tailor’s apprentice so as to discourage her from playing football.

“Football is not for girls,” he told her. “It is forbidden in Islam and it does not pay.”

But Latifah did not remain an apprentice for even a week. She wanted to play football and continue her schooling. On the day she packed and left, Latifah was choosing football over her father’s approval.

International debut

She is not alone in this situation, and neither is her father. Latifah is one of many girls in the region who seem to be faced with a tough choice between their passion for football and other interests. Her father represents parents whose traditional religious beliefs make their daughters’ choice to play sports very hard for them to accept.

Until the early 1990s, women’s football in Ghana was not competitive. It was mainly played for fun. In 1999, Ghana’s national female team, the Black Queens, made history by playing at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in the United States. They were the first Ghanaian national team to make an international debut, a record that was held until the male team, the Black Stars, made an appearance in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

The Black Queens have gone on to qualify for three Women World Cups. Despite these successes, female football generates less interest and attention in comparison to male football.

As a result, girls who play the game, as well as those interested in the business of female football, have a lot to contend with. Apart from the financial muscle needed to register clubs, procure a training pitch and changing room facilities, and meet a list of requirements by FIFA, some have to overcome stereotypes and resistance from parents who see no value in the sport for their daughters.

I don’t feel like doing anything else apart from playing football with my colleagues. We are all dreaming of our future, that we can be professionals someday. As of now we are struggling to be in the national team, because without the national team, you can’t find yourself a better place to live.
—- Latifah Suleimana, 13, footballer —-

“Some of the parents here think it is forbidden for a girl to play football. They tell you football makes the girls lazy or just say Islam does not allow it,” says Sumani Basirudeen, one of the coaches for Latifah’s club.

Latifah’s club is called the Goldfields Ladies . It is a division one team based in Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s Northern Region. It was started seven years ago as a response to a demand by a number of girls who wanted to play football.

Before its establishment, there was the Goldfields Boys football club, which dealt exclusively with male footballers. Latifah often watched with interest as the boys played.

“I wanted to play just like our male counterparts, and even better,” she recalls.

Since its establishment, the Goldfields Ladies Football Club has moved on to win a few district championships and provided players to represent the Northern Region at the Middle League. Last year, two players from the team were considered for selection to the Black Maidens, Ghana’s national under-17 female team. Though they did not make the final selection, Coach Sumani Basirudeen called it “a very impressive feat in the club’s development”.

Beyond the recreational and professional value of sports, founders of the team envisioned a more idealistic objective for women’s football in the region.

“It is common to see teenage girls in this region getting pregnant or running off to the south to work as hawkers and sleep on the streets,” says Basirudeen.

“What we are trying to do with football is to engage them in a very productive way, so they do not have time to idle around or even consider going to the big cities as kayaye [head porters]. We also encourage them to take their education seriously. Through football, we have gotten high school admission and scholarships for about six girls on the team.”

In a region where girl child education still lags behind the national average, any intervention that encourages education is noteworthy. According to the Department for International Development: “More than 65 percent of girls over 15 in Ghana’s Northern Region have received no formal education (compared to the national average of 21 percent).”

For girls like Latifah, the educational support in football is another motivation to play the game. Before leaving her father’s house four years ago, she was his only child with formal education. When she moved in with her coach, the club supported her senior high school education for some time, but she had to quit in her second year because they could not afford the fees.

“Now all I do is play football,” she says. “I don’t feel like doing anything else apart from playing football with my colleagues. We are all dreaming of our future, that we can be professionals someday. As of now, we are struggling to be in the national team, because without the national team, you can’t find yourself a better place to live.”

A question of religion

Abdul Rahman Alfa is a teacher at a madrassa in Ghana. Although he considers himself a football enthusiast, he does not watch female football for religious reasons. Alfa alludes to Islamic religious tenets, which forbid women to expose certain parts of their bodies.

“People talk about the headgear or veil, but that’s not the only thing. Even if women decide to play football in trousers, it still does not meet the religious requirements, so I think they should just stay out of it,” he says. Alfa’s argument is in-line with the views expressed by Latifah’s father and other parents who oppose their daughters’ involvement in football.

Religious controversies surrounding appropriate dress for female footballers are not new. In 2007, FIFA banned the hijab and other headgear in football. Its critics cited the ban as discriminatory against Muslim women. In March this year, FIFA lifted the ban, authorising “the wearing of head covers for religious purposes during matches”.

Commenting on the issue of girls in the Northern Region, Leanier Addy, chairperson of the Women League’s Board at the Ghana Football Association, emphasised the need for a middle ground in support of the game.

“We haven’t had such problems because football is only for 90 minutes [duration of a match], and some extra time where necessary. We encourage all our players to respect religious and cultural differences and to exercise tolerance on every level,” she said.

Very often, the Ghana Football Association organises exhibition games to raise awareness of discrimination and issues related to religious and cultural differences. “Sometimes you need to respectfully educate folks to understand some of these issues,” Addy said.

On a late January morning this year, Latifah returned to her father’s house. She had fallen sick with a skin rash and the coach informed her father, who took her in for treatment. Since then, she has been living with her father. She goes for weekly football training with less opposition from her father.

“I think he’s getting to understand this is what I want,” she says. “Although he doesn’t give me any support, I know he’ll be happy when I make it.”

Story was first published by AlJazeera