When you think of Egypt, what comes to mind? Probably not sports. The same can be said about NYU, where sports take a back seat compared to most colleges. So it made for an interesting experience when the Tisch Center for Sports Management, Hospitality and Tourism Scholars Program embarked on a journey to Egypt to study sports.
Of the three potential destinations for the juniors in the program, Egypt was like Davidson - a long shot at best. Switzerland was set to host the 2008 European Championships and was home to the headquarters of FIFA. Brazil had just earned a bid to the 2014 World Cup. The Egypt proposal was slightly more abstract: study the effect of football (soccer) on women in breaking down traditional barriers in a Muslim culture.
As a member of the Scholars Program, I was initially disappointed when Egypt was chosen. But after learning more about the situation there, I quickly warmed up to the idea.
On the plane ride, I read a book called "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory on Globalization," hoping it would give me some insight into our area of study. In it, author Franklin Foer explained the situation in another Muslim culture, Iran. Just 10 years ago, women in Iran were forbidden from attending football games. What's happened since then has been considered a football revolution, and in 2003 roughly 3,000 women were allowed to step inside the international stadium to celebrate a World Cup Qualifier win.
As soon as I met women's soccer pioneer Madame Sahar El Hawari, I realized that Egypt was no Iran. Dr. Hawari entered the room dressed in jeans and a jacket, a stark contrast from the more conservatively dressed women we had been exposed to in Cairo. Dr. Hawari's story was a truly amazing one that culminated with her becoming the first Arab woman named the International Olympic Committee's Woman of the Year in Sports in 2003.
Dr. Hawari was brought up on football. Her father was a famous FIFA referee and an integral part of the Egyptian Football Association. Still, he tried to explain to his daughter that women and football in Egypt just didn't go together. Sahar wouldn't have it.
She made it her life's work to foster a women's football league in Egypt and was undeterred by those who insisted it was purely "a man's game."
Her task was not an easy one. Simply due to the way women were expected to dress, football was fundamentally at odds with their culture. She started recruiting at a grassroots level, pursuing every lead from upper to lower Egypt. She told us a story about how she recruited one of her strongest players, a peasant from Lower Egypt who spent her days collecting crops and played football against the boys in her free time.
Dr. Hawari's proposal to the players was unique. She would take them into her home and support them with everything from food to clothes. The girls spent the next five years with Dr. Hawari and trained vigorously.
To increase awareness for the club, she took her players across the country as entertainment at various festivals. They played a looser style of five-on-five football as a way of introducing the country to the idea of women playing football.
And she didn't stop at Egypt.
"If I'm only building in my country, how will they play competitions?" Hawari said. "My mission started here and spread to the Middle East and then the rest of the African countries."
On our trip we got to see the fruits of Dr. Hawari's labor, as her youth team prepared for an international showdown in the Women's Youth World Cup Qualifier.
The entire trip was an eye-opening experience. Seeing how women's football was able to persevere through tremendous resistance makes you regret the struggles of women's soccer in this country, where it faces fewer inherent societal hurdles. Despite a successful national team, the last women's soccer league (WUSA) was forced to fold in 2003 after only three seasons. When it officially returns in the spring of 2009 under the name Women's Professional Soccer, I'll keep in mind the efforts of Dr. Hawari.