(SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates) — In the U.S., “March Madness” basketball season is approaching. But in Sharjah, Somali women basketball players are making our own basketball history by competing in the 4th Arab Women Sports Tournament in Dubai.
I am a Somali-American born in Sool and raised in Mogadishu. I began playing basketball at the age of 7 when my older sister Safia was playing and I tagged along and started drilling with the ball. I fell in love with the sport, and as I grew older, it helped me learn teamwork, get an education, earn respect, and become a leader.
In the 1980s, I was a player and captain on the Somali Women’s National Basketball Team. At that time, our government supported us with the freedom to play across Africa and the Middle East. I was also able to earn a scholarship at the University of the District of Columbia in the United States.
But in 1991, soon after I arrived in America, civil war broke out, shattered my country, and prevented me from returning to Somalia until almost two decades later. My goal now is to empower Somali women and girls through sport so that they may share the joy and benefits from basketball that I had.
When I returned to my country in 2009, I was shocked and saddened to find that extremist groups like Al-Shabab banned women and girls from playing sports and regularly send death threats to those who dare to play. The collapse of the central government of Somalia in 1991 shuttered all sports infrastructure and caused many athletes to flee the country. Men and boys continued to play sports even after the collapse of the government — but it became impossible for women and girls to participate in any kind of sport. Militants and religious extremists, controlling many parts of the country, branded women’s sport participation as an immoral act. Extremists were all over the news banning basketball for women in Somalia, and they even claimed that athletic gear is against Islamic teachings.
Sports like basketball can create educational opportunities, employment and safe places for women and girls. So in spite of threats from extremists, we are developing the game from grassroots to elite levels by recruiting players, training coaches across all states of Somalia, and building courts and gyms in secure environments.
Although we are making progress and galvanizing support from various communities in Somalia, the threat of violence lingers.
“They tell me to quit playing basketball, otherwise they will slaughter me,” said one young Somali woman who has come to love the sport as I do. “They will not stop me from playing basketball.”
From every state in Somalia, from every gym and court we create, our goal is give women and girls the opportunity to learn, know and love sports. My ultimate goal is to build and train the first Somali national women’s basketball team since the civil war.
In December 2016, we held the first “Somali Federal Women’s Basketball Tournament.” After one year of planning, we were able to bring together teams from the six different states of Somalia, and Somali diaspora players from the USA and Canada in the city of Garowe. With the generous support of donors, we built a brand new basketball court and carried out the tournament.
The project helped re-open the door to women and girls’ participation in sports in Somalia on both the professional and amateur levels. Some 450 young women and girls watched the games daily and 192 girls played on seven regional teams. We employed 192 Somali women for 10 days.
In October 2017, I recruited and coached a combination of Somali natives and Somali diaspora players for a team that competed in the All Arab Games.
We were the first Somali women’s team since the May 2017 overturning of the FIBA (the international basketball governing board) ban on women playing basketball with hijab. That allowed our girls to compete while wearing the hijab. However, we came up against another FIBA rule that did not permit the girls to play with arms and legs covered — which is another requirement of our religion. Some of our players declined to play for fear that exposing their arms and legs could lead to criticism, physical abuse and even death when they returned to their home states.
From our initial efforts to rebuild basketball in Somalia, we have seen concrete benefits: Families are now encouraging girls to participate in sports, especially basketball and track and field. Parents are less convinced by extremist claims about why girls must not play sports. And perhaps best of all, the number of young girls between the ages of 8‐18 who want to play basketball has increased dramatically, and the number of female spectators increases with every tournament.
From our small beginnings, we will select a Somali Women’s National Basketball Team and plan to participate at the international level.
Here at the 4th Arab Women’s Sports Tournament in Dubai, we hope to win. But even if we lose in the tournament, Somali women basketball players are winning simply by being in the game.
Below, watch a short documentary about girls in Somalia and their love of basketball — and what they must do to play the game they love in defiance of Al-Shabab.
Suad Galow is a Development Director for Maternal Life International, and the founder of the Somali Women Foundation. She is the Chairperson for the Somali Basketball Federation. The Somali Women Foundation’s mission is to develop equal opportunity and gender equality through the power of sport in order to improve health, education, community and peace for Somali women and girls.