Sihem Bouyahia is an activist and student in Algiers, Algeria, and is an alumnae of the 2009-2010 National Democratic Institute’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy, held in part by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As a girl I always dreamt of attending a soccer game instead of watching my favourite players on TV. But in the North African region and specifically in Algeria, access to soccer stadiums is limited as far as women are concerned, despite there being no national law banning such access. Nor is attending games an illicit activity in the Islamic religion. For instance, in an Arab and Muslim country such as Egypt, women are free to attend any soccer game. Why is it not the case in my country?
The authorities say it’s a security problem; the police don’t want to take on the responsibility of any incident or aggression against women by people that they cannot control. But there are cultural obstacles to women’s access to public places including stadiums. Women’s freedom is restricted as they cannot access cafés, for instance. Women are not supposed to have coffee outside their home. Coffee shops and other public places are men’s field. Many men think that women may go to school, work and go shopping but are not supposed to and should not hang around in streets and public places. They think that women’s freedom of movement should not be total and should obey what they call “traditional” values. And a woman attending a soccer game outside her home is likely to “harm” those values.
However, women can and do practice sports and even soccer as sports are very important in Algerian society. There is even a national female soccer team. Women’s interest in soccer has always been great but since the national team has had impressive results and qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2010, their enthusiasm became hysteria. Many women of all ages wanted to attend any game involving the national team.
A year ago, I had the pleasure to participate in a program held by the National Democratic Institute, aiming to encourage young women to be socially active in their societies. Once I came back to Algeria, the first thing I thought of was to do something about women’s access to stadiums as the Algerian soccer team was playing to qualify for the African Cup of Nations.
I decided to make a project to facilitate this. I come from a progressive family so I didn’t have difficulties gaining their support as well as that of my friends. So I started a petition which all, women and men, signed and would have signed by friend of theirs, and so on. I also created a website dedicated to my project I interviewed female soccer players and sought their support. I’m also planning to have an appointment with the Algerian Sports Ministry to expound my project and make a step forward towards its implementation.
My strongest argument was that violence which is said to be behind women’s limited access to stadiums could be reduced if women and families could attend soccer games. If hooligans go to stadiums with their own families, their attitude would be completely different. I’ve also recommended that there should be an entrance and seats reserved to women at least at the beginning until men get used to seeing women in all public places including stadiums. What is seen today as a revolution will gradually become just ordinary.
What do you think about Sihem’s activism? Is challenging “traditional values” in a public setting such as a soccer (football) stadium effective? In terms of Islam, is there a line which should not be crossed in reference to women in public spaces? How much of Algerian norms surrounding soccer stadiums is cultural and how much is Islamic? Is there a difference?