Feb 23, 2006 (KHARTOUM) — After five years of playing her first love soccer behind closed doors in Sudan where Islamic laws restricted female sports, Sara Edward is finally playing a match against other women in public.
Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with no head covering, sweating 19-year-old Edward is the captain of the "Challenge" soccer team which is among six teams of young women who have battled to break traditional values in Sudan and hope to form a national competitive team.
"In the beginning we had sharia (Islamic law) here and people didn’t want women to play football," Edward told Reuters on Thursday.
Religious freedom was a key issue in a bitter north-south civil war in Sudan but, since a peace deal last year, sharia has been more loosely applied in the north.
Women in Khartoum in the past were forced cover their heads and wear long skirts. But the appropriately named Challenge team refuse to wear those clothes.
"It is too difficult for them to play when wearing head covering," said Michael Archangelo, the team’s coach.
Some of the opposite team, from the Sudan University, were playing dressed in head coverings and long trousers, hot work under the blistering desert sun in Khartoum.
After years of fighting with the authorities, who blocked their work to form a competitive women’s league, the teams are at last playing in the first public league. Thursday was the second match in that league.
Organisers said the 2005 peace deal which ended Africa’s longest civil war in Sudan’s south was key to opening the way for them to begin playing.
"Of course after the peace society has become much more open — anyone can wear whatever they want, for example," said Edward, whose favourite soccer team is Brazil because she says she likes their flair.
Religious freedom was a frontline issue in the conflict, which pitted the Islamist Khartoum government against the mostly Christian and animist south.
Since the deal a new coalition government has been formed and a new constitution agreed protecting the religious rights of non-Muslims in the capital.
The girls have a long way to go before they make it to the World Cup, as many took wild swipes at the ball and missed.
But budding talent was clear as some showed off tricks with the balls at half-time to an audience of giggling young men on the sidelines.
Challenge under Edwards’ leadership won 2 : 1 against Sudan University, and she said she wanted most to make the national team, which they hope to form in April at the first women’s football tournament in Sudan.
"We were the ones who first established football here, of course I want to make the national team" she said.
But they need support from the Sudanese football association which has so far not donated any money to the women, who fund their own activities and make their own kit.
The facilities could do with work too, as they played on a dusty, uneven pitch full of holes, with the lines so faded it was difficult to tell where the playing field ended.
The soccer coach at Sudan University, Ahmed Adam, said he hoped to expand women’s soccer to the schools and introduce young girls to the sport from an early age.
"I want to collect the girls and form five-a-side teams to expand the sport," he said. "People can see now that girls can play football in Sudan."