The future of women’s football
The future of women’s football
During the 2020 Football People Festival, the FARE network held a webinar on sexism, discrimination and the way forward for the women’s game.
The FARE network held the first ever Football People Festival on 19-23 October 2020. It consisted of a series of webinars discussing issues, ideas and actions on the future of football. CNN International sports reporter Amanda Davies hosted a webinar on the future of women’s football, featuring four panellists:
- Sarai Bareman (Chief Women’s Football Officer at FIFA)
- Tziarra King (American football player; Utah Royals)
- Jean Sseninde (Ugandan football player; Queens Park Rangers W.F.C.)
- Haifa Tilli (sociologist, Free University of Brussels)
The 2019 Women’s World Cup
Bareman started the conversation by noting that the FIFA Women’s World Cup, held in France in 2019, was a milestone moment in women’s football and exceeded all expectations. Sseninde reiterated the sentiment. The big stage provided by the tournament helped highlight success stories and change people’s mentality. Cameroon and Nigeria making it to the quarter finals has also had a huge impact on Africa, especially girls and women, who now have a renewed sense of hope. This has also enabled the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to launch its first women’s football strategy for Africa, a step in the right direction.
Bareman said that during years when there is a major tournament, there is more hype around women’s football. Thus, the World Cup provides an incredible platform for athletes to raise their voices, and for the public to take note of the gender discrimination and sexism in the game.
She also emphasised that global competitions are the biggest catalyst for driving development. National teams are more actively engaged around qualifiers, and for national teams to be active, the talent pathway underneath also needs to be strong. By increasing the number of teams participating in the World Cup, there will be more incentives for countries to develop those pathways.
Yet, with the COVID-19 pandemic, panellists were unsure if the momentum gained in France would be lost. Bareman said that FIFA’s top executives have doubled down on their commitment to women’s football, a commitment that many important partners have also promised.
Sexism in the game
Davies highlighted a recent report which claimed that 66% of women in football have faced discrimination. This included not just players also other women working in football. The panellists agreed with the report: in a space that is so dominated by men, being one of the only women can be very intimidating.
King noted that men need to be held accountable for their actions and also take the lead in making football more inclusive. Sseninde said that women often do not report on these incidents because they have worked very hard to earn their spots. They do not want to be labelled as a ‘troublemaker.’ The solution is to get more women in positions where they hold power and can make decisions.
Bareman said that for progress to be made, men have to be included in the conversation – change cannot be brought about by women alone. Men have to call out unacceptable behaviour when they see it and support women.
Who is left out?
Panellists also discussed the issue of diversity within women’s football. The game remains mostly white and promotes a certain idea of femininity. It is also becoming more elite, with only the wealthy having access to the sport and the chance to excel in it.
Tilli highlighted the perspective of hijab-wearing women, noting that not all women in the sport are welcomed. The ban on hijab-wearing women from the FIFA World Cup, which was in place until 2014, severely restricted Muslim women’s access to the game. The will of these hijab-wearing women is not considered, and they are often excluded from the field for no good reason. Football, for them, is not just a fight against sexism but also a fight against Islamophobia.
While many hijab-wearing women play football in their suburbs and cities, they are still not seen much at a higher level. Since a whole generation of hijab-wearing women were denied the opportunity to play the sport, it will take a while for the overturn of the ban to bear its fruits.
Sseninde highlighted that the game is often missing black athletes as well. Opportunities in Africa for female footballers are limited so the international community and federations need to take steps to ensure that African athletes can participate.
King echoed this sentiment, arguing that football is quickly becoming an elite sport. Though grassroots participation does not require a lot of equipment or investment, it is harder for people on lower incomes to go further in the sport. The pay-to-play model has exacerbated such issues and widened the gap.
King also noted that diversity in women’s football is limited and that diversity cannot just remain a buzzword. Indeed, at all levels of the game, a concentrated effort has to be made to make the game more accessible to all rather than an exclusive club. Empowerment and soccer mean different things to different people. There should be the freedom to explore these avenues should remain rather than putting women in boxes to behave a certain way.