Women Footballers Trapped by Gender Stereotype

Even though women’s football has become more and more respected around the world, female football players face challenges to which many people turn a blind eye. Besides the normally publicized troubles of lower wages, fewer sponsors and less support, women in Ethiopia who play football have to contend with another challenge: questions from the greater society about their gender. To be taken seriously, many are finding that they have to suppress their femininity, something which can leave lasting scars, as EBR Adjuct Writer Abiy Wendifraw found out.

36-year old defender, Hewan Tariku (name changed), admits she fears retirement. She learned to kick a ball at age four and never stopped. To her, football is the one job she knows how to do, and can do well. Already struggling with her pace and stamina on the pitch, she doesn’t expect her career to last for much longer.

The prospect of retirement is traumatic for any professional footballer. In Ethiopia, one good reason for footballers to hesitate to end their playing careers, even after passing the average retirement age, is money. Football in the country pays a lucrative monthly salary, as high as ETB 300,000 for men and ETB 40,000 for women. Apparently, this is huge money to go by for the players, many of whom barely completed high school.

Eyerusalem Negash, the former national team player who had to face early retirement in 2008 after struggling with a terrible, career-ending injury for the previous four years, argues that there are more reasons to be reluctant to hang up the boots. “You might save enough money to begin new business after retirement. But rejoining society as a woman is really hard,” says the 34 year old.

“As a woman, first you need to convince the community that you can play football. Later, when you are done with football, you need to convince everyone that you can be a good mom, or you can be a woman in the traditional sense.”

Many years ago, playing with boys at Meskel Square as a small, football-loving girl, Eyerusalem remembers how the public stereotype of female players pushed her to act in different ways. “When our body structure started to change, people began to react because they thought that women playing football was inappropriate. Shaming us was not enough. I remember some were tempted to turn violent and tried to beat me. They say ’why don’t you go home and help your mom in the kitchen?’”

Because she could not let go of her dream of becoming a football star, Eyerusalem never wanted to give up. Rather, she thought she should find a way to hide herself. “I went to the stylist told him to cut my hair like the boys. The next day, those negative shouts from the spectators were mute. I could hear people clapping for the good passes and shots saying, ‘Well done. Good Boy!’ ”

Other female players of her batch felt vindicated. Acting like boys became a popular trend. It wasn’t just the hairstyle they copied, but they started to wear men’s clothes. People started to judge their character, the way they walked and even the way they talked. “Sadly, that was how we felt we could escape the bullying and the abuse, and be accepted as footballers,” Eyerusalem explained.

Eyerusalem and her friends’ hard fought battle to keep playing football might have carried them all the way to becoming a star. But the cost of becoming a female football player has not been well settled yet. Eyerusalem, who now coaches the Electric women’s football team, has concerns about how her players will deal with life after their inevitable retirement. Having to put on a mantle that goes against your own personality is a challenging thing.

“If you want to get married and become a mom, you will have a challenging process to ‘undo’ some of the characteristics you adopted. It will not be easy. After my retirement it took me years to ‘undo’ those habits. My fiancé persistently helped me for three years to regain my natural characteristics,” says the mother of two.

Kibur Engdawork, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University with a background in sociology, thinks there are theoretical reasons behind the challenges women in sport face.
“When someone deviates from the norm, or from what society expects from you, you pay for it. Women might risk the prospect of having a relationship, because the ‘ideal’ physical structure or shape might not be there. She risks the connection with the family, friends and the significant others because the ‘ideal’ behavior might be missing.”

Friends of Eyerusalem are still playing. Most of them are not prepared for marriage and the majority struggle to settle into relationships.  
“Dealing with this in your mid 30s as a woman is very tough. The psychological and sociological problems happening to women in football and the things waiting to happen in their life is too big to ignore,” says Eyerusalem. “I had no plan to become a coach until I realized this problem later. Now I feel I have the responsibility to coach girls, not just in football tactics, but life skill too. I strongly believe we need to work on their personalities as well.”

Taking advantage of  her influential status as a former player, Eyerusalem tries to communicate and consult her players as a friend. When she was a coach at Ethiopian Coffee women football team, she organized “a dressing day” where the players would wear women’s clothes and dresses. “I want to remind them of these things. I want them to see each other and think ‘wow that is beautiful.’”

While Eyerusalem hopes for the positive outcome in the process, Kibur reflects his concern on the other possible consequence of the social control. “The informal sanction for deviants against the social norms of the society might successfully pull some back, and it might possibly push others to the extreme to become more deviant in their sexual behaviors,” he argues.     

“Football careers last no more than 15 years. They should have a life after walking away from football. Coaches, players, the sport administrators and the media should take part. Clubs that pay tens of thousands of birr for a player should never excuse budget constraints for not having life skill coaches and psychologists,” Eyerusalem argues.

According to Kibur, positive tertiary deviance can have a role to play in this. The victims can come to the stage and try to normalize their relationship with the society through informing the public about the sport, the societal reaction and the consequences. “Women’s sport is not at all strange to us. We had a women’s football team ‘Etu Mela Michi’ some 40 years back. We have women athletes who conquered the world stages after giving birth and settling into family life. Their sporting careers and family life can be examples to footballers and society.”

Hewan, who is nicknamed after a well-known African male player, is apprehensive when talking about life after football. “I have few friends out of the football world. My childhood friends are all engaged in their family life. The closest friend I had is now a mother of three. I stopped visiting her long ago. Maybe I was bored of her regular advice. Or maybe because witnessing her family life kept reminding me of mine.  I do not know when exactly I will walk away from football. One thing I know is I will never go back to my hometown.” EBR

8th Year • Mar.16 - Apr.15 2019 • No. 72


Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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