Once every four years, we get the chance to celebrate the millions of women and girls who play soccer around the world as we watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
But as you cheer for top players and your favorite national teams, it’s also a chance to reflect on the fact that in many countries, women and girls have to fight to even get onto a playing field. And once they do, they face threats, unfair pay, harassment and sexual assault.
In May 2017 FIFA published a landmark human rights policy that commits the federation to “upholding the inherent dignity and equal rights of everyone affected by its activities.” But it has a very long way to go.
We are at a moment of global reckoning over discrimination, abuse and exploitation of women in the workplace. That reckoning should extend to athletic fields, and players of all levels, from schoolgirls to Olympic champions. The sports world needs to adopt and enforce human rights policies and practices for permanent changes to ensure that women can play sports, be fairly compensated, and experience sports as a safe space.
While they compete for goals and prizes, women footballers have a bigger challenge: changing FIFA, the federation that runs the game itself.
Women are increasingly vocal on their right to play sports, to do so safely, and to be paid fairly for their work as professional athletes. From Kabul to Sydney to California, female athletes are demanding equitable pay, safe working conditions, and basic protections against sexual assault and harassment.
But in 2019, women’s World Cup teams are competing for just 7.5% the amount of prize money awarded at the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia.
In March, 28 members of the US women’s team filed a class action lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation for gender-based discrimination, presenting evidence of inequitable compensation, training conditions and medical support. Australia’s women’s national team, the Westfield Matildas, says they are prepared to take FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, to court if it doesn’t increase pay for female soccer players.
But even beyond the World Cup, access to sports is restricted for females in many countries by culture, pay, and physical danger. In Saudi Arabia, the male guardianship system limits a woman’s freedom to travel abroad. Authorities have required Saudi women competing in the Olympics to travel with a male guardian, though girls can at last play sports in state schools as of 2017.
Qatar is the host of the next men’s World Cup, but its stated commitment in its World Cup bid to women’s empowerment through sports has done nothing to reform the discriminatory laws that keep women effective second-class citizens. Qatar has a women’s national team—but they have never competed in the Women’s World Cup. Souad al-Hashimi, a player on the team, has said, “There aren’t very many girls playing football. So when the boys play, I go play with them.”
In Iran, women are barred from watching soccer matches in stadiums, a violation of the Olympic Charter and basic human rights. Iranian women were kept out of the national stadium at a qualifying match between Syria and Iran, even though some Iranian women were able to purchase tickets. Some reported they were arrested and beaten.
Women in Iran have filed an Ethics Complaint against their federation president, Mehdi Taj, who despite violating the FIFA statutes’ gender equality rules was nonetheless elevated in April to vice president of the powerful regional governing body under FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
The stadium ban puts women and girls in danger when they take risks to protest and to attend soccer games dressed as men. Female sports photographers have to scale rooftops outside the stadiums to do their jobs. Yet with Iran still banning half the population from stadiums for four decades, FIFA has never punished or criticized the Iran federation leaders for their exclusionary policies.
In Africa, female staff members have filed multiple sexual harassment complaints against the Confederation of African Football president Ahmad Ahmad, who sits on the FIFA leadership council.
Players on Afghanistan’s women’s national team filed claims against federation president Keramuudin Karim and other officials for sexual assault and death threats. One female player told the Guardian that “Karim put a gun to her head after he punched her in the face and sexually assaulted her in a hidden bedroom accessed from his office, threatening to shoot her and her family if she spoke to the media.” Other players say they were called “lesbians” and subsequently got kicked off the national team.
This month FIFA finally banned Karim for life, for “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players.” This is an important step forward. But whether families feel it is safe to send girls to play depends on whether Karim is prosecuted and those who enabled him are kicked out of football. Karim’s general secretary of the federation, Sayed Ali Reza Aghazada, is suspended for his role in the abuse of women players—yet was somehow just promoted to the AFC’s governing executive committee.
Instead of elevating abusers to leadership positions in global soccer, FIFA needs to back women’s rights in word and deed, and do a better job of supporting female players, coaches, teams, and fans.