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Football, Love, and Feminism: My Holy Trinity

How a sport "not for girls" shaped the life of Mona Eltahawy.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

My dad and I are watching the World Cup together in Cairo, Egypt. It’s the first World Cup in forever that is on while we live in the same city. My family has left and returned to Cairo many times, together and separately. My first ever World Cup was Argentina 1978. Ten year old me watched with my dad and my younger brother in London where my family had moved from Cairo three years earlier. Those early matches with my dad and brother have instilled in me a thrill that kicks in—pun fully intended—as soon as the studio pundits shut up and the camera switches to the pitch.

It’s an especially poignant World Cup because the day before the opening Brazil vs Croatia match in São Paulo, which we stayed up past midnight to catch in a Cairo cafe, we had stayed up in a hotel reception hall past midnight for my sister’s wedding party. The family’s baby was getting married—I was 19 and my brother 15 when she was born. And so by the time the World Cup was opening, we needed a distraction.

The World Cup has a way of leapfrogging over our lives every four years that makes it perfect to trace how far—or not enough—we’ve come. And in my case, it’s as if the World Cup has taken one of those spray cans the referees are using in Brazil 2014 to draw the line behind which defenders must stand for a free kick, to trace a history of love and feminism for me. Yeah, football, love, and feminism—my holy trinity.

Soon after that 1978 World Cup in Argentina, that little girl in love with football was kicking balls around with her little brother and his friends and wanted to join a newly formed—the first of its kind—football club at her London school. But my dad—and remember it was 1978—said it was not for girls. It was an early inspiration for a feminism that took full hold when I was 19 and which now gets me called a “radical.”

By the time the 2010 World Cup in Germany came around, the little boy I used to kick that ball around with—my brother—was driving his daughter to soccer practice (they live in Ohio so I’ll allow the “soccer.”) in between matches. Now both daughters and their two brothers all play soccer and—it’s long past 1978—their grandfather proudly watches them all, yelling encouragement from the sidelines.

My first World Cup in the United States—where I lived 2000-2012—was Japan/South Korea, in 2002. I lived in Seattle at the time and the miserable time difference—I would set alarms to catch matches—perfectly reflected my miserable and unravelling short-lived marriage. (The other two World Cups I caught in the US were set to a much happier backdrop in New York City.)

Fast-forward to my sister’s wedding—the start of a much longer and happier, love-filled marriage, I hope—and football, love and feminism were all there, at my side. It has been a tough three years in Egypt. Since our revolution began in 2011, friends have been jailed, others have seen loved ones shot dead by security forces, some have survived a massacre during a football match in February 2012 that many of us are convinced was orchestrated, or at least encouraged, by the then military junta and the police against fans of Ahly football club (in revenge for the anti-military chants and positions during football matches and protests) and many of us are the walking wounded, traumatized and re-traumatized by assault and detention. I am one of too many women sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces, who also broke my both my arms during a protest in November 2011.

Love sustains. Love distracts. And like football, love lifts us beyond the reach of those traumas—at least when it’s going well (football and love).

In Egypt, when wedding receptions are held in hotels it has become a custom for the bride and her father to walk down a set of stairs to the sound of a boisterous band playing a traditional wedding march called a Zaffa, during which the father of the bride hands her over to the bridegroom. In a break—or a feminist improvement to that tradition—our mother and father flanked either side of my sister as they descended the stairs towards her waiting groom.

My mother is one of 11 and my father one of eight but for both sides of the family, our nuclear family are the mavericks. My sister and I refused to become doctors, for instance. The family pattern—I should say the Egypt pattern, for men and women—to show you are intelligent and ambitious is to become a doctor or an engineer. My parents were the first on both sides of the family to get Ph.Ds (in medicine; it was why they moved us to London in the 70s). I am their eldest child and the eldest of all the cousins and I am a writer.

The importance of breaking with family tradition was neatly brought home at my sister’s wedding by a cousin who is a footballer who tracked me down in the reception crowd. I’m not difficult to find: I have bright red hair and a tattoo on each of inner forearms.

“I’m a couple of weeks from getting my bachelor’s. I will get that certificate, hand it to my mother and get out of here. I’ll go play football in Europe or the U.S. I want to live. And I’m getting a tattoo—something like Joy, that I can kiss whenever I get a goal. You know the family would never shut up if I got a tattoo here,” he told me.

He has been obsessed with football from as soon as he could talk: player statistics, scores, transfer news, detailed analyses of what should have been played. But in a family full of doctors and engineers, being a footballer was near impossible to pass muster. So he agreed to study engineering as his “backup.”

“Just you wait ‘till I get famous,” he told me once. “All those relatives who gossip and badmouth me will be lining up to have their pictures taken with me.”

I’m really proud of him for insisting on football. When we talk about defying family, it’s a huge kick for me that he recognises how my feminism and unconventional life—especially my personal life: never remarried, childfree by choice, for example—has helped younger cousins like him push further than if I had not shocked family.

The kinds of rebellions that my footballer cousin and I discuss are the stuff of our revolution. No society can be freer than its individual members and, with conformity and obedience still highly rated in Egypt, we have a long way to go. Our revolution cannot just be about removing dictators from presidential palaces. It must go home and overthrow dictators in the family too.

Talking of dictators and Mubarak, he and his regime understood how effective an opiate football is. In 2006, they skillfully used Egypt’s hosting of and victory in the African Cup of Nations to distract attention away from a ferry disaster in which 1,000 people drowned in the Red Sea.

I’m sure the World Cup in Brazil is a welcome distraction to our newly inaugurated President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the former head of military intelligence, who supposedly won with 96.91 percent of the vote. The only other candidate contesting last month’s presidential elections came third, after voided and spoiled ballots. In keeping with a fine heritage of humour, some Egyptians wrote comments on their ballots—one person wrote that Manchester United needed a new midfield—while others suggested the names of who they’d like to see become our president, besides the two candidates. One person wanted Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, who just days before the election had scored the goal that denied Atlético Madrid the Champions League by taking the match into extra time, giving Real more opportunity to score.

As I talked to my footballer cousin at my sister’s wedding, our conversation turned to military rule and our determination to continue to fight it. We danced for hours with my sister and her bridegroom but as soon as we sat down to eat, my footballer cousin and I were talking politics and were joined by another cousin, a 25 year old news producer, who’d recently left the country for a work opportunity abroad.

Both those young men knew where I stood on the revolution and Sisi’s election “victory.” The victory for me was the number of us who had boycotted the elections or just totally ignored the frantic pleading of pro-regime media to vote. The election was extended by an extra day because turnout was so poor. “Electing” a military man was a continuation of the military rule we’re trying to end. But for older Egyptians especially, such as an one of the uncles on our table at the wedding, that military man, Sisi, represented the kind of “stability” he believed Egypt needed.

Not missing a beat, the 25 year old cousin laid out the bitterness at such an attitude that many of his cohorts feel:

“With all due respect, uncle, but your life is over. You’re about to retire and you’ve lived your life. Let me live mine. I want a good job. I want to get married, I want to have children. And I want an apartment I can afford to bring them up in. Don’t stand in our way!”

I was relieved I did not have to argue with the uncle myself. And the two cousins reminded me why I remain optimistic about our revolution—because of young people like them who speak their mind,understand the need to break away, and who refuse to be silenced. 

I remember that conversation every time I watch the World Cup. I wonder if Sisi is relieved that football is keeping people busy. He must know though that there are enough Egyptians affected and changed by the revolution that started in 2011 who will refuse to let a football tournament distract them from what’s going on in the country. What can distract you from the detention of 20,000 people over the past year, since Sisi jumped on the bandwagon of popular protests to overthrow President Mohamed Morsi? What can distract you from the massacre of almost a thousand Egyptians—the worse massacre in modern Egyptian history—when security forces broke up a sit-in by supporters of Morsi. The 10 month anniversary of that massacre is June 14, the third day of the World Cup. The day before the World Cup, 25 people were sentenced to 15 years in jail for violating a draconian protest law and other charges.

As I watch the World Cup with my dad—who along with my mum make me proud to be two of the few parents of my social circle and extended family who are not pro-Sisi—I can hear the people around us at the coffee shop crack jokes about Sisi. One man watching the Netherlands’ drubbing of Spain noted sarcastically that Sisi would visit Spain in hospital in the way he visited a woman who was gang-raped in Tahrir Square on the day of Sisi’s inaugration. Terrible taste in “joke”: definitely. But it showed an understanding of the PR value of the visit.

As I watched Spain’s drubbing at the hands of the Netherlands—with a beautiful contribution from Robin Van Persie of Manchester United—(My team since I was 9; my dad, my brother and his four children are all Liverpool fans. Of course)—I wondered if Sergio Ramos would’ve preferred being president of Egypt rather than being on the receiving end of a 1-5 disaster.

And as I watched my dad blow kisses back at Arjen Robben whenever the latter scored and looked into the camera and sent it kisses, I thanked love, feminism and football for bringing me this far, my father’s daughter, 36 years after Argentina 1978.