Abu Dhabi: Times change. And ideas, customs and beliefs do change accordingly.
A few years ago, no one would believe that a woman from the conservative society of the UAE would go to watch a football match, let alone play it.
Yet the UAE women's national football team is now taking part in the West Asian Zone Championship that it is hosting. Teams from Jordan, Palestine, Bahrain, Iran and Kuwait are participating.
The transformation from merely allowing women to watch football matches to actually play did not happen easily. It was the outcome of dedication by the pioneers and an enlightened generation of educated men and women.
Hafsa Al Ulama, Chairwoman of the Women's Football Committee at the Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC), was also one of the first to fight for the UAE women's right to practise sports in general and football in particular. Hafsa shed more light on the beginnings and talked about the future of women's football in an interview.
Gulf News: How was the beginning?
Hafsa: The start was difficult as expected. We had started playing football at girls schools and some of us really loved the game. In 2004, a group of us met at the Abu Dhabi Sports Club and thought of forming a team of seven as we had problems finding more girls to play.
Shaikh Hazza Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the club and the ADSC, saw a good future for the team. He helped us in his belief that sports should be practised by both men and women and his support provided us chances to play teams from countries like Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria.
What helped you increase the number of players?
Three years ago, a women's football competition was introduced during the Ramadan Games by the Abu Dhabi Armed Forces Officers Club and teams from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Palestine and Kuwait took part with us. Our players gained great experience and became more enthusiastic about the game. Our number increased from seven to the full strength of 11.
What was the reaction of the society?
We have a social problem convincing some parents, but you know football is a family game in the sense that all the family watch the matches, especially in big tournaments like the World Cup or the European, Asian and African championships. Enjoying the matches was the first stop and playing it next. So if the families permit their daughters to watch and enjoy the matches, how can they forbid them from playing the same game?
There are 30-40 million women footballers in the world today. The UAE society's progress has given women the opportunity to become ministers and ambassadors. It also allowed us to play football. Some 15 years ago nobody would have believed that there would be a woman minister in the UAE cabinet, now there are four.
What about women's football in other cities of the UAE?
Our belief in ourselves and our dedication helped us overcome the challenges we faced and we are extremely thankful for the continuous support of Shaikh Hazza and we work hand in hand with the UAE FA, the UAE Schools Sports Association and the Ministry of Education because we are not only working for women players in Abu Dhabi but in the whole country."
How do you see the future of the game in the UAE?
We are planning to spread the game by organising the first league between girls schools in the new education year in September and that will really help spread and improve the game. We also have plans to organise workshops and seminars to prepare and upgrade lady coaches and referees in the near future.
We are looking forward to more regional and international tournaments and we are confident that our game will improve and find its place among the other sports that achieved victories for our country.
Do you think the UAE team has a good chance of winning? Will this see more women entering the sporting field?