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Atiya Zakaria by Eve Hartley
Atiya ZakariaPhotography Eve Hartley

Let’s not forget, women’s football is still an act of resistance

As the Women’s World Cup reaches new levels of recognition and respectability, we explore how inequality has always been rife in the game

When the early football clubs of England began to establish the Football League in 1888, women were already left behind. Men went about buying plots of land near towns and cities to build stadia for their teams, while married women had only recently been given the right to buy estate with the Married Women’s Property Act, and very few did.

“People now wonder why women didn’t establish their own clubs, but it was part of this broader lack of access to owning property,” Jean Williams, Professor of Sport at the University of Wolverhampton, tells Dazed.

The next fatal blow hit the women’s game in 1921, when despite a rise in popularity post World War I, the FA banned women from playing on professional pitches, as well as denying them access to male coaches. The ruling argued the game was “quite unsuitable for females”.

The history of the sport reflects the women’s rights struggles of the era, but it’s also an integral part of understanding why there’s inequality within British women’s football in 2019.

One of the reasons why there is a resistance to women playing football is because it’s seen as a traditionally masculine sport, says Dr Stacey Pope, an associate professor at the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University.

Pope argues that the game is “regarded as the last male bastion”, meaning women who enter the sport face unique challenges, as opposed to women playing sports such as netball, which developed as the feminine equivalent to basketball.

“The very fact that women are playing the sport is chiselling away at this very notion of football as a masculine space, and the male preserve,” Pope tells Dazed.

Pope, who has researched female football fans and media representation of women’s football extensively, believes men could be becoming more resistant now that women are becoming more empowered and visible in the game.

“Whether it be female supporters, players, match pundits, referees, that kind of female visibility is when you get the misogynistic comments and sexism,” Pope adds.

Xinia Ramirez, 25, a grassroots player for London-based Las Estrellas, says that, as both a player and a coach, she’s been confronted by men for playing the sport.

“Once during a mixed match in my early 20s, I blocked a guy’s attempt to score so many times and he was visibly upset,” Ramirez recalls, “he said he just couldn't get past that ‘little girl’, so he elbowed me in the face and gave me a concussion.”

As well as physical threats on the pitch, Ramirez says she’s faced regular verbal attacks from men after matches while wearing football kit.

“During Saturday league, men would stand and catcall us, and taunt us with the fact they were sexualising us while we were playing football,” Ramirez adds.

Social barriers and stereotypes are also a factor in the struggle for the game’s equality. Atiya Zakaria, 20, who also plays for Las Estrellas, tells Dazed about the problems she has faced because of a lack of women’s teams in her area, as well as stigma within the Asian community. It was, according to Zakaria, being stereotyped as a ‘tomboy’ which made playing football easier for her. “I guess it made it seem like I’m one of the guys, I think it would be harder if you were more feminine,” she says.

The need for women to present as “masculine” to begin playing is also something Pope has found within her research. “This was in contrast to what they described as the ‘girly girls’ who wouldn’t have been able to play a sport like football because it would have completely undermined their femininity,” Pope explains.

“During Saturday league, men would stand and catcall us, and taunt us with the fact they were sexualising us while we were playing football” – Xinia Ramirez 

However, players who presented as a ‘tomboy’ to enter the game, hit difficulties when reaching adolescence, or their teenage years. “That’s when there’s a societal expectation that they should be feminine and then you get that massive conflict, and that’s when some of them would have – not all, but some – would drop off, and stop playing,” Pope says.

This is something Ramirez recognises: “My mom would always beg me to be ‘more feminine’ and say things like just because you play football doesn’t mean you have to be so masculine.”

Coralie Ayala Alvis, a grassroots women’s player based in London, said when she started playing football in primary school, the reaction from her classmates was to call her names such as ‘dyke’ or ‘tomboy.’

“I believe this was because another friend and I were the only women playing football with the boys, and we had better skills than some of them,” Alvis says.

Jean Williams, professor of Sport at the University of Wolverhampton, argues that the pressure to conform to femininity in adulthood also exists for the professional players.

“We call it the ubiquitous ponytail, you can see it all over this World Cup,” Williams explains, “the ponytails are something that really characterise femininity.”

Williams believes commercialisation is a factor in the feminisation of the women’s sport. Players should be able to present as they wish, she asserts, but contracts are often given to a specific type of player.

“If you look like Toni Duggan, you are probably more attractive to sponsors,” Williams says, “they’re trying to make a professional career out of it, and very few of them are going to be able to do that, so they’re going to use everything at their advantage to do that.”

Financial equality is one of the most concerning obstacles for women playing the sport. Many women have to balance their career with a second job, or second income, which can undermine the time they have to invest in playing. The average salary for a player in the women’s super league is around £35,000, says Pope, “the money has to be higher to sustain it as a potential career.”

The financial gap between the women and men’s games is a problem which has been affecting teams globally.  The US women’s team, ranked as the number one team in the world, sued their federation with allegations of “institutional gender discrimination” over pay, in April. Other nations such as Thailand and Jamaica are reliant on private benefactors to even attend the Women’s World Cup.

Nualphan Lamsam, a Thai business owner who financially supports the national team, employs some of the players during quiet periods at her insurance company. They work as sales representatives. The Jamaican women’s team exists because of money injected from Cedella Marley, Bob Marley's daughter. Prior to that, the team was disbanded because of a lack of funding.

“Many of the (football) Federation’s don’t care about women’s football at all,” Williams says.

“FIFA doesn’t compel its national associations to spend money in any particular way, so although since 1999, there’s been a specific pot of money that has to be spent on women’s and girls football, and that money should have grown over time, it doesn't monitor or oblige the national associations to spend it,” Williams explains.

Despite all the resistance, and setbacks, Williams believes women have always fought back and always will. “I think it’s partly the nature of women. And it’s also partly the nature of football, that women really, really love football and have since the inception of modern football, so they’re willing to put up with all that crap to play the game that they love.”