The following is a guest post from one of my fellow volunteers from the 2015 Women’s World Cup. She and I randomly started talking one day, a conversation which led me to interviewing her for our volunteer newsletter. It was during the interview I learned of her experiences being a female footballer living in London, and I (of course) just had to ask her if she’d be interested in sharing here. So happy she was and now has. The more stories female players share, the better off the sport will become.
Moving to England, I had a great many expectations. To be in the throws of the very gargantuan that lay the roots of much of modern Western social structure and is the historic epicenter of intellectual pursuit, I could not but make grand assumptions. However, such anticipated outcomes were to be riddled with waves of disappointment. This fault, however, was all my own. Or was it?
Beyond the commonly disputed questionability of English fare, there is a vast cultural persona that permeates into the very perceptions of those dwelling within the hectic metropolitan walls of London. A preconceived notion that has managed to tunnel deep within the self-protecting shields and bury itself as a flourishing parasite, unwilling to release its barbed grasp, is the belief that football is solely a man’s sport.
One of my many great hopes in crossing the wide sea was to have the chance to grow and develop my skills in a game held closely to many English hearts. With a football club close at hand and the spectrum of colours adorned upon fans ever closer, any passerby is without need to yearn at the abundance of news, excitement, and paraphernalia easily obtained. One would assume, with such a proliferation of goods, ideas would flow just as freely.
Not so it would seem.
Countless times I was inflicted by this intangible, yet very real factor of discrimination where there is a strong association and acceptance of socially ascribed roles for men and women. I would certainly argue that England is by all means a progressive and forward thinking nation, yet, in addition to numerous rules that encourage order and obedience there has been an inadvertent maintenance and adherence to an old-fashioned/archaic mindset as a consequence.
But, please excuse me. I seem to be getting ahead of myself.
Joyously wandering throughout the cobble-stoned streets, as images of Bend It Like Beckham flickered throughout my mind, I was determined to find a team. Mere weeks into my venture, upon inquiring of female football teams, I was confronted by the common phrase: “No, none that I am aware”, “Not around here”, “Hmmm in London? I don’t think there are any…”, and “Girls? Nah”.
Waves of disbelief washed across me. How is it possible that the nation I had so strongly believed to be the eminent archetype of world class skills not have female and male football teams in every possible area of the country? A thought crossed my mind: “Could this only be the case for the men?” “No”, I brushed off such absurdity. Not in London.
Through my various discussions with dormmates, I was aware that the Arsenal Football Club was mere blocks away from my abode. Yet, throughout my continued searching, I was unable to locate any such thing that could be even be close to an inkling of a female football team.
Yet, a little bit after, I was invited to a scrimmage being organized by my school’s graduate student association. This lifted my weary spirits, though, sadly, not for long.
The day quickly approached. Excitement overwhelmed my senses. I was finally going to have the opportunity to engage in top, grade-A, football taught by those who knew the sport before they were introduced to the sound of their mother’s voice. I donned my shorts and jersey, packed my guards and boots, and was off. The pitch was dark, and was nothing like the green pastures and white posts I was accustomed to.
Within high chain linked fences laid a pitch composed of green painted asphalt and a permanent, metal net. I saw one other girl in the midst of what became the stage for competing, raw, male talent. When approached by a man with an quizzical look on his face, “I am here to play” I said, the confusion seeming to grow until he understood I was serious. A wide smile spread across his face, “Al’righ then!”
After the series of games that followed, and the other female ‘player’ taking a seat outside the pitch and avidly supporting those in boots, I felt as though I had done something wrong, or missed a sign that indicated tonight was just for the male participants and that the female players were gathering on a different night.
I walked to the tube and was joined by some of my male ‘teammates’. They shared their enthusiasm that there was a girl (“A Girl!!”) interested in the sport and said that it wasn’t common for a girl to play. Whether this is for lack of want, or inability to locate an actually place to play, I am not certain.
Broader conversations and interactions began to bring to light the reason for my inability in finding a team. Something hidden in the shadows of the responses I was receiving. The undertones and body language, at first, left me puzzled. But then, I quickly came to realize my immense naivety. It is discouraged for women to play.
In general, it is something that women just do not do. Yet, broadly, a stigma surrounds any woman who participates in this sport most heartedly dominated by men. Part of the problem rests in the fact that there is a great many assumptions that the world is in a state of equality. However, there are sadly an abundance of examples where this is just not the case (pay gap; glass ceiling; gender selection for careers, education, and the opportunity to live, etc.).
I quickly became disillusioned by the unspoken, accepted reality: women were not to play football. Those who did desire to take part were afraid of being ostracized by doing something that was not of the norm.
As a way to avail the situation of such ignorance, and buck against this “truth” that had been dictated, I readily acted to employ my own tactics. I would arrange co-ed football games within my dorm. There may not have been many women interested in joining the games, but it offered a chance for assumptions to be broken down and different ideas to slowly permeate and inspire a paradigm shift: people of all genders playing the sports that bring them joy.
Ten months after I first stepped onto Old Britannia and was shortly about to leave, the coach of Arsenal’s youth team, a student and dormmate of mine, told me Arsenal was looking for female players for its female team. My first thought was to postpone my ticket and see what opportunities may lie in the future.
Yet the more I considered this as a possibility, the more frustrated I became. It was too late; I was irrevocably disheartened and appalled by how difficult and unaccepting the society had been as I quested to find a team I could belong to. I agreed to participate in some scrimmages with the club, but resolved I needed to return to Canada and do more to promote the sport, and overall, equality.
I needed to be a member of a team seen equally for my talents and my membership, both in co-ed and league sports. Prior to commencing my studies, this was something I had not realized at the time, but certainly had taken for granted. A major challenge is that there is little awareness or acknowledgement that there is a vast chasm separating what is believed and what occurs in actuality.
From my experiences I realized that society as a whole, not just confined to the borders of England, but are just as profuse in Canada, women and sports were seen as unimportant and in no way comparable to the male equivalent. Unfortunately, this has to do with deeper sociocultural factors that perceive women as somewhat less than men, especially when it comes to sports. It is not fair to be treated as less simply because your playing is not as ‘popular’. It is not fair to deny me what is a basic human right. Do we not all deserve dignity and respect no matter our chromosome?
I believe so, and will endlessly fight to counter false perceptions, encourage awareness, and deny the ‘reality’ of the worldview that has been ascribed to me as the life I have to live.