Can women’s football be a game changer?

Queer identities, widely accepted on the pitch in women's football, may be the way to challenge gender norms in some societies.

Image credit Andrew Ryan Turner via Flickr (CC).

Some comments that female footballers in Senegal regularly receive as they make their way to the football pitch, include: “Hey, go back to the kitchen!,’’ ‘’is it a boy or a girl?’’ or ‘’don’t play football, it will make you barren.’’ Football is not deemed an acceptable leisure activity or career choice for women by everyone.

Large disparities were evident in the level of the teams that competed in the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. Think of the 13-0 result in the United States vs. Thailand game, which revealed that women’s football has not developed equally everywhere in the world. This is as much due to the negative image of women’s football as it is the lack of money invested in the game in many places around the world. Perceptions are slowly changing though, and its status is quickly rising with the success of some of the teams.

This appreciation for women’s football may be precarious however: as a team books success, an opportunistic nationalism may inform the pride for the women’s team; but without success, women’s teams are quickly reduced to derogatory ideas, such as “lazy lesbians.” When Nigeria’s women’s team, the Super Falcons, failed to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, lesbians were blamed. Despite the Super Falcons being Africa’s most successful football team, having won 9 out of 11 editions of the African Cup of Nations until then (and 11 out of 13 now), their poor performance in 2016 was blamed on lesbian relationships that “kill teams.’’ The occasional alarmist stories in the media about the prevalence of lesbians in women’s football happen in parallel to a tacit acceptance of queer identities in women’s football. Particularly in West Africa, female football represents a public space for gender dissidence where young women’s masculine style and same-sex relationships are tolerated.

Although various articles reported recently the spectacular growth of women’s football around the world and on the African continent, what remains unanswered is how women themselves negotiate this status, and how they navigate the perceptions of their families and society at large for their engagements in football. How does the masculinity expressed by many female football players relate to societal visions of womanhood? Female masculinity in Senegal is captured in the category of jump, a self-identification of young women who embody a certain masculinity. Football women are often criticized for their masculine styles, which people link to lesbian identities. Most female football players in Senegal do indeed present in a masculine fashion, both on and off the football field. What is interesting is not debating whether or not these women are lesbians, but rather to explore how these women negotiate respectability and status, reconciling their gender and perceived sexual dissidence with normative expectations of womanhood.

Female masculinity is not restricted to the football field, but jump are most visible there. In fact, “it is the identity card of footballers,” said my interlocutor Hawa. She argued that the abundance of jump in women’s football is not a matter of expressing “true selves,” but rather “a way to show other hidden lesbians, that there is another one here… one who plays football… it’s a way to show girls, big ladies, others.” Despite its visibility, the nonverbal character of masculine dressing styles allows for discreet communication about its meanings and intentions, and follows the Senegalese value of sutura (Wolof for discretion, modesty) and a certain unspokenness of practices.

Jump female masculinity in Senegal is not only a way of making a same-sex desire readable for other women; it also addresses gender nuances between women and it is an argument against the universalizing tendencies of hetero-patriarchy to construct one vision of womanhood and of female beauty. The “imitation” of men has the potential to de-essentialize such identities and acts, revealing that they can be embodied from different positions and can thus take on new and unexpected meanings. Many football women adopt the names of famous (male) football players as a nickname, through which they express an aspiration to masculinity because of its promise of a certain mobility, autonomy and economic and social independence. They herewith present a simultaneous commentary on modernity and gender, both of which leave women out of positions as stars. By presenting themselves as these football stars, they make a fist against everyone who says that football is not a serious activity for women and they claim that they too can bring home pride, money, success, and responsibility: they turn an alleged male leisure activity that women should stay far from into a valid option for respectable womanhood.

On an organizational level, Senegal has some strong ambassadors for women’s football. Seyni Ndir Seck, former captain of Senegal’s national women’s team, has led the Women’s Football Committee of the Senegalese Football Federation since her election on 8 July 2017. In 2009 she had established Ladies’ Turn in collaboration with Jennifer Browning and Gaelle Yomi, an association that seeks to promote women’s football in Senegal through the organization of a biannual tournament. At other levels, football players and enthusiasts themselves find ways to advance the status of the game in Senegal. Yaye studied law at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, and although she had stopped playing football at the age of 13 at the request of her parents, she has been involved as the secretary general of one of the Dakarois women’s football teams for a couple of years now, having been reintroduced to the milieu via a girlfriend. She is particularly committed to advancing the status of women’s football in Senegal and she tries to do so among other things via the movement “Je suis football féminin” that she initiated. Reminiscent of “Je suis Charlie” after the attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015, her movement is a call against the stigmatization of women in football in Senegal. She established a Facebook group to update (female) footballers of their competition, as well as of developments in women’s football elsewhere. She also used the hashtag #jesuisfootballféminin to comment on concrete cases of marginalization of women’s football in Senegal, such as when during one match, two players broke a bone on a sandy pitch full of stones—the proper fields had all been reserved for the men’s competition. Such efforts reflect the political potential of sport, where societal gender norms can be challenged.

Yaye’s goal is not only to promote women’s football as such however. She is also seeking to educate women on how to properly behave on and off the football field, in order to garner more respect from society. She explained to me:

The girls didn’t know what private life was before… it is important that they know sutura and proper behavior. Some girls like to walk with their trousers below their buttocks. How can you expect someone to respect you then? Some girls just do not understand that not everywhere is the football field. I try to teach them the difference between private life and public life.

With her efforts, she shows how adhering to the Senegalese norm of sutura in her eyes enhances one’s respectability as a football player, while simultaneously defending the football field as a legitimate space for women to frequent, a space that only tacitly represents a queer space.

By carefully balancing their masculine presentation and active engagement in football with societal expectations of normative womanhood, jump have the ability to produce and accumulate transgressive capital: the opportunity to demonstrate gender transgressive behavior in the urban environment, and actually acquire status with it in the spaces they frequent, despite the simultaneous (official) denouncement of such behavior. This capital transforms with time and space, and it may be particularly attainable in the life stage that most footballers are in: below thirty and unmarried, when their behavior does not directly threaten the social order of marriage and procreation. Irrespective of its particular life-stage attachment, football women in Senegal negotiate respectability through various practices, whereby they critique binary oppositions between masculinity and femininity; men and women; and the respectable and the immoral. They clear the field for new generations of girls to join their male friends on the field and share their enthusiasm with their families—an important step in the advancement of equal chances for women and men. Women’s football is an important arena through which such changes can occur, and change will happen, slowly but surely.

Further Reading

I, Surya

The story of Surya Bonaly, and her unwillingness to yield to racist demands and expectations in the sport of figure skating.