Gender roles in Muslim communities, as in many other countries, limit women’s participation in sport. Traditional values place a premium on women’s duties as wives and mothers, with sport viewed as a predominantly (male affair) masculine domain. As such female footballers and spectators in Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Turkey face a common prejudice, with football being perceived as a “man’s game” unsuited for female participation.
Payman Assi Muhammed – a Sports Studies graduate from Salaheddin University, Kirkuk, became a Physical Education teacher at a local school in 1994. Following a traumatic life-changing incident during the Iraq war, Payman became one of the first women to join Spirit of Soccer (Iraq) in 2010.
“On a cursed night, specifically at (8:05 pm) in the evening (7/5/2007), my stepdaughter and niece (Ryan) were martyred at the hands of the American occupation forces. My grief and sadness turned into a power in me to help other children out there, raising their awareness, and [to] protect them in any way possible”
Kirkuk is the capital of Iraq’s second largest oil producing province and home to 1,7 million Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen. This ethnic melting pot has been a battleground since ancient times, the most recent being that of the war against ISIL in 2017. Consequently this region cursed by conflict carries a lethal legacy – a landscape strewn with landmines and other Explosive remnants of war (ERMs).
A chance meeting with the founder of SOS, Scotty Lee, set Payman on a path to become a female football coach and with it with a shot to reconcile her past.
“He sympathized with me about the incident, and with it showed great compassion – He understood my passion to help all those children, children who reminded me of my niece.”
On hearing her tragedy Scotty offered her a position. Over the years working with SOS, Payman has visited many conflict and post-conflict countries, organizing international tournaments for vulnerable children. She has been able to closely observe the lives of those displaced, witnessing their suffering and more importantly able to help, offering counseling and support.
“This [the programme] can only be done by engaging children with useful hobbies that teaches them to love life and sacrifice for the sake of their community and build sportsmanship and physical skills – specifically football – which is the most popular game in the world.”
Now a crucial part of the organization, Payman explains the importance of the SOS programme to her personally:
“I was the first woman to participate in this organization at this level in Iraq, and (Scotty Lee) concern for me was a matter of thanks and gratitude. Working with Spirit of Soccer has giving me strength and courage – to overcome misery through the the joy of helping others, ensuring that my goals are to help people as much as I can and to reduce the risk of casualties through landmines and other war residuals”.
Payman is proud of her achievements: On the field she played for the Iraqi national side with a clutch of medals to show for it; then off the field as a coach, with a “C” FIFA accredited license along with certificates in tournament planning and coordination; and, finally for her work on the frontline – gaining Risk Education Managerial Skills (UNMAS), with qualifications in Awareness against mines and Remnants of War skills.
“Spirit of Soccer supported me to visit and experience Western and Eastern societies – to become familiar with the cultures of these societies. My work in this organization got me back on my feet and able to overcome the tragedy that plunged me into the abyss of despair.
Whenever I work to educate a child and help them pass a trap of landmine or ERW, it is as if I see Rayan’s smile, which is missing amongst the absences of treachery, injustice and cruelty.”
In closing Payman offers encouragement “My message to Arab women in general and Iraqi women in particular is to dive into the different fields of life and discover their capabilities, as they are no less capable than men.”
Spirit of Soccer promotes female inclusion and is a staunch advocate of women’s football development and their involvement in those communities in most need of assistance.
The main goals of the SOS programmes are to:
– Promote football among women and young girls in order to empower the role of female players and help them realize their full potential.
– Provide the ball and arena for female players to pursue their goals by using football as a means of empowerment, working for health and welfare, women’s rights, and education.