The Iraqi women’s football team made headlines in the country last year by playing their first ever competitive match. The Lionesses participated in the Asian qualifiers in Jordan and finished bottom of their group. Despite the heavy defeats, it still marked a significant step in Iraqi women’s football and was the first time they took to the field in six years. We caught up with one of the team’s players to learn a little more about life as a female footballer in Iraq. First off, we asked her to tell us a little bit about herself:
I’m Naba Ameer Shakir from Babil, I’ve previously played for Beladi, Imam Al-Muttaqeen and Al-Hilla, and now I’m with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya. I play as a defender in both futsal and football.
Being a female sportsperson in Iraq can be very difficult; with very little interest and support it is extremely difficult for them to see football as anything other than a hobby. However, Naba aspires to break the trend and become Iraq’s first pro female football player.
Just as any sportsperson I dream of representing and winning championships with my country. However I also want to be able to play football at a professional level overseas. I realise that it is a difficult task, but I’m not giving up on my dream without a fight.
Naba achieved the first of her dreams this past April as a 16 year-old. The defender started against the United Arab Emirates in a 3-0 defeat. The match was a qualifier for the Asian Cup, which will be held next year in Jordan.
It was an indescribable feeling to represent Iraq on the international level. Seeing my country’s flag flying high and hearing the national anthem play before the match gave me a rush of euphoria the first time it happened and I crave nothing more than to get that feeling again.
One of the biggest obstacles facing women in Iraq from working in unusual professions such as football is how the society discourages women from working or even from playing recreational sports. It is often the case that parents forbid their daughters from pursuing sports, ordering them to pay attention to their studies or to settle for being a housewife instead. Additionally, when some women take the risk of pursuing athletics, they are often ridiculed and belittled on social media. A change in the way society views women’s sport is needed in order to progress.
My parents were never against me playing football; in fact without their continuous support and belief in me and my ambitions, I would have never reached the level that I am at right now. I read everything that is said on social media about my game but I only take the comments that are constructive and that can improve my performance. It is still hurtful to read negative and sexist comments posted by many regarding us, but it is expected that we face these sort of comments and there will always be a lot of individuals who try to discourage us. Yet, I will not allow them to stop me from focusing on achieving my dreams.
With the lack of female Iraqi sporting role models, Naba had to look elsewhere for idols playing the beautiful game. The recent increase in exposure of the women’s game has led her to an admiration of a certain World Cup winner. The lack of any women’s activity in Iraq meant that Naba became a huge follower of the men’s game, and is impressed by the recent improvement of the men’s team.
My favourite player would have to be American star Alex Morgan. Not only is she a fantastic player and a World Cup winner, but her success off the pitch in involving herself in the American society and even appearing on the cover of the FIFA game has made her a role model for me and many other aspiring female athletes. The Iraqi men’s team have been very impressive under Basim Qasim, and I think the results speak for themselves. Personally, I believe that had he been the manager from the start of the qualifying phase, Iraq would have qualified for the World Cup.
The introduction of competitive games to the women’s side had rough results to say the least. The team finished bottom of the group with five defeats from five, without scoring a single goal while receiving a total of 22 throughout the campaign. Naba attributes the harsh results to a number of reasons that are beyond the squad’s control.
The public must realize we aren’t miracle workers and that the defeats heavily fall on the lack of preparation and attention we receive from the people in charge of us. There is a huge neglect of the women’s sport in Iraq from both the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Iraq Football Association. In fact, I would say that the fear of repercussions from FIFA and the AFC is the only reason we even have a women’s team. The women’s game from top to bottom is neglected and has no support, both morally and financially. We need better infrastructure and training camps. We also need more opportunities for girls to enrol in academies from a young age and more support on the school level. We don’t even have an organised league and most of us primarily play futsal; you can’t expect us to perform on a completely different field with different play styles. Our only hope is that we get bigger support and bigger interest in the women’s sport from the people. That would force those in charge to give more attention to our side. The public also needs to stop belittling our team and should try and encourage us, even in defeat.
We at Soccer Iraq would like to thank Naba Ameer and the entire women’s team for their hard work in representing Iraq despite all the obstacles they face. We will continue to support and report on their progress no matter the results. We hope that all our readers do the same in supporting women’s sport in Iraq. Unfortunately, we are far behind on this front in comparison to not only to the rest of the world but even our neighbours such as Jordan, Syria and Palestine amongst others. Gender equality around the world starts with conversation, it starts with awareness, it starts with small changes – drastic changes don’t happen overnight. If we all play our part in supporting the women’s game, maybe they can bring happiness to our country by lifting the Asian Cup themselves one day.