Try being a woman playing soccer in Sudan

The guardians of women's femininity and virtue and their use of public space come up against a women's football team in the Sudanese capital.

Two of the protagonists in "Khartoum Offside." Still from the film.

Offside in football is an illegal maneuver, which occurs when a player’s body parts are closer to the opposing side’s goal line than the ball and the last defending opponent—not counting the goalie. It is an appropriate title for a film about Sudanese women’s bodies—and minds—attempting to enter professional soccer, an institution conventionally protected as much as possible, in many countries, from women. “Oufsaiyed Elkhortoum” (Khartoum Offside) is a welcome addition to the recent global news coverage of Sudan. As the April overthrow of the al-Bashir regime was the culmination of months of grassroots protests, in which women played a dynamic role, so this film offers a grassroots perspective of the neighborhoods and football pitches of Sudan’s capital city.

This  is a graceful film depicting a group of young women’s love for and dedication to their sport, within the larger context of everyday-Sudanese people pursuing other work and leisure with similar love and dedication. Khartoum is a crusty city of some 5 million people, and Sudanese-Egyptian filmmaker Marwa Zein’s camera covers it, from the confluence of the Blue and White Niles to the dusty popular quarters where these women make their lives and try to perfect their football skills.

The footballers are a mixed group of Sudanese and South Sudanese women working for a living as building maintenance workers, high school students, shopkeepers, and the like. Members include women from the Nuba Mountains, a particularly oppressed region near the northern side of the new border. And their struggles include the South Sudanese team members’ efforts to stay in Sudan, where they now require a residency permit after the breakup of the two Sudans in 2011. Thousands of people who must now obtain permits, have never lived in South Sudan.

The inner-city football pitches that the team uses to practice are a common sight across urban Sudan. Until recently, Khartoum and Omdurman had vast and open spaces near residential areas, where men of all ages could bring their teams and spend the day enjoying the beautiful game—girls were largely relegated to the sale of snacking seeds and fruits on the sidelines, or to cheer on their brothers or cousins. Today, with the rising cost of urban lots due to the demand for the construction of housing—read high-rises—and commercial spaces at an outrageous premium, football pitches are reduced to rent-by-the hour wire cages carpeted with green artificial turf. These cages are called khomsiat (“fives”) in reference to the number of players typically on a team in this more-confined space. They have become a ubiquitous sight particularly along the main thoroughfares in Omdurman and Khartoum. In the film, we see team members passing the hat to collect the sum needed to continue their practice session, with some arguing over whether teammates who had to leave early were also responsible for the cost of the cage. While these spaces may be rented to whomever has the cash, it is not the same ease with which one gains entry into the world of professional football in Sudan. The guardians of those gates, and apparently of women’s femininity and virtue, are Sudan’s religious authorities.

Zein began making the film four years ago before the uprising of 2019 and the overthrow of the 30-year dictatorship of al-Bashir. However, the film neatly reflects the contemporary theme of women’s strength in the face of direct opposition. After the revolution, the Salafist right remains determined to prevent women’s participation in politics and sport with an imam named Yousef Abdelhay leading that charge. Abdelhay invested the wealth he made, a result of a close relationship with the deposed al-Bashir, into television stations and support for terrorist organizations, declaring himself ISIS’s “man in Sudan.”

The new government named Ms. Wala’a al-Boushi the first woman Minister of Youth and Sport in Sudan, and she immediately made a grant to establish a women’s soccer federation in Sudan. This decision has been relentlessly denounced by Imam Abdelhay from the pulpits of the nation’s mosques for several weeks now. Abdelhay attempts to rally the nation behind him by declaring that “sport will erase the differences between men and women,” and that “women will deviate from their feminine nature,” on the football pitch. The courageous women in Khartoum Offside don track pants and head scarves to play and won’t be mistaken for men.

With its setting of football as the site of a national struggle, Khartoum Offside is reminiscent of Men in the Arena, the wonderful 2016 film about the launching of a Somali national team. The ethnographic quality of Khartoum Offside, with the film’s entire soundtrack captured in the voices of the players, their friends, families, and coaches, Marwa Zein invites us to witness still another field of women’s struggle in a Muslim society. Girl joy, on and off the pitch, punctuates the film as it joins the growing genre of African football cinema.

Further Reading