Egyptian women take to the American football field
CAIRO - It’s a spectacle that few would imagine in Cairo — an American football field full of Egyptian women.
From its beginnings in 2016 with three teams, Egypt’s all-female informal flag football — American football as opposed to FIFA’s game — league now has eight clubs vying for supremacy.
The version played by the women is non-contact, with players seeking to snatch flags tucked into opponents’ waistbands to end a play, rather than the tackle version played by the National Football League and colleges in the United States.
For the women who have taken up the game, which faces stiff competition for attention in a country mad about football, it’s a chance to escape the many pressures of city life.
Habiba Mohamed, 19, said her friends and parents were surprised about her new passion.
“When I told them at home I will practise American football, my father and mother told me: ‘How is this possible? You need to be careful,’” she said.
Mohamed is kitted out in the green-and-yellow jersey of her team, Gezira Thunder, which is playing rivals the AUC Titans at the Maadi Olympics Centre, a stadium that normally functions as a non-American football venue.
It proves a good day for her, as Gezira storms to victory, albeit in a largely empty arena, save for a smattering of cheering friends and family.
A teammate is keen to emphasise the non-contact nature of American flag football.
“My friends thought it was a violent sport but it is not, as I have told them, and when they came to watch the games, they liked the sport a lot,” said 20-year-old quarterback Yara Tawheed. “The level of violence in this sport is similar to that in ballet.”
Some, however, would prefer to play the full-contact version. Alia Haytham, 22, a student at Cairo’s American University, said she hoped to play the undiluted game to help her release anger and energy.
“This does not detract from flag football being fun,” she said. “All of us here have problems at university and at home but, as soon as we enter the pitch, we forget everything that preoccupies us.”
The coach of another female team, the adventurously named Hell Hounds, said he was proud of his players.
“If you see how hard these girls work, I think you would really admire what they put into it,” said 30-year old American Matthew Kershey.
Egypt became a member of the International Federation of American Football in 2014. The federation is leading a drive to register teams outside Cairo and expects several new clubs will be up and running for next season.
The game “is not new in Egypt, where it was initiated among men in 2007,” said Asmaa Marie, a spokeswoman for the Egyptian Federation of American Football.
Marie, who wears the Islamic hair cover and plays regularly, cites similar motivations to Haytham’s. “The game has helped me control my anger and release stress,” she said.
Games have been organised against teams in other countries. Last year, the Cairo Warriors, another of the capital’s teams, played a Moroccan outfit in a friendly and this year took part in a tournament in the United States.
In a socially conservative country, playing a spectator sport can be a radical departure from the norm for women, especially games traditionally associated with Western men.
Marie said, however, that “the game’s popularity in Egypt will surpass that of many team sports, like volleyball and handball.”
“The American football community in Egypt has grown and we feel that we all know each other,” she said.