Samar Sheikh’s neighbours used to tell her football was not for girls but the criticism stopped when her team won the very first women’s championship in Syria.
The 20-year-old also finished top scorer at the end of a season that saw teams from all over Syria face-off over weeks before the final that was held in late January in Damascus.
“I’ve been hooked on football since I was little,” says Sheikh during a training session in Amuda, a town in northeastern Syria where part of the autonomous Kurdish administration is headquartered.
“I used to watch my brothers play and I’ve watched a lot of games,” she says, as her teammates, all wearing fluorescent bibs, jog behind the coach on the artificial grass of the covered pitch.
The young Kurdish woman, sweat pearling down her face and her ruffled hair in a ponytail, recounts how she started playing when she was 15 but had to stop “because of the criticism from her family and neighbours.”
She came back to it more determined than ever to overcome social and gender prejudice and it all paid off when it was with cheers that a crowd greeted her and her team off the bus after winning the national trophy.
– Victory parade –
With their medals around their necks, Sheikh and her teammates even went on a celebratory tour of Amuda, joined in dance by residents congratulating them and asking for selfies.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Seeing all these people in the street to celebrate our victory.”
After a week-long break the team has resumed training for two hours a day.
Dalaf Hussein faced the same challenges as a teenage girl trying to live her passion for football in northeastern Syria.
Plastered on the walls of her room are posters of her favourite players, including one of Portuguese legend and Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Passersby used to bother us when they saw us play in the street because it was considered a boys’ sport, but we never paid attention,” she says.
Hussein says she also had to deal with her parents’ opposition to her playing football.
“But after our victory in the championship, there was no pushback,” she says, with a chuffed smile.
Syrian society is still largely patriarchal and conservative but women enjoy greater gender equality in areas under Kurdish control.
Hussein says she hopes football will continue to grow in her region.
“Many girls have come to sign up since our victory,” she says.