The Somali women’s basketball team finished fourth in the recent pan Arab Games in Qatar, beating the host nation and just missing out on a medal place. The result, remarkable as it is for a country that has no formal state infrastructure and continues to be torn apart by civil war, internal political factions and religious fundamentalism, is not as remarkable as the journey these women have taken just to be able to play the sport they love.
Basketball is the second most popular sport in Somalia after football, and along with football and handball the only sport played by women there. With no financial assistance or conventional sports management and little in the way of training facilities the women’s basketball team has had to struggle to simply exist, so to qualify for the Arab Games was an achievement in itself.
They had to draft in players from across the globe, including the United States, Canada, UK and Germany to ensure a full squad, many of whom hadn’t even met their teammates before the competition, let alone played in a match with them.
After qualifying for the Games team captain Suweys Ali Jama was contacted by the militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab, which until recently controlled much of the southern part of the country and large areas of the capital Mogadishu, and was issued with an ultimatum to either stop playing basketball or face execution. As a result the team had to train in secret and under constant protection behind the bullet-ridden walls surrounding the central police academy for fear of reprisals.
Somalia is almost exclusively a Muslim country and in 2006 the Somali Islamic Courts Union (ICU), part of Islamist ruling elite that briefly controlled the country, imposed a ban on women playing all sports labelling them a “satanic act” and “un-Islamic” as part of a strict sharia administration.
Al Shabaab, initially an armed wing of the courts, emerged as a religious and political force in its own right and has since re-enforced the directive prohibiting sports, especially women’s sport, in large parts of the country.
Despite the death threats and ongoing hardships, the women’s basketball team has unexpectedly become a symbol of aspiration and progressive ideas in defiance of the severe moral laws imposed by the fundamentalist political groups, and with each game they play signal the way forward for greater female liberation throughout the region.