August 31, 2012 7:42 pm

First Person: Honey Thaljieh

‘I was Palestine’s first female football captain’
Honey Thaljieh on the soccer pitch©Charlie Bibby

Honey Thaljieh’s first international match for Palestine was against Jordan in 2005

I started playing football when I was about six or seven, in the streets of my neighbourhood in Bethlehem. If there was a football match on TV I’d watch it. When I saw boys playing with a ball outside, I’d run to join them.

In the beginning I learnt by watching and trying things out. At school, girls usually just sat on the side and talked during sports sessions. I started joining the boys’ football games when I was 13, and they tried to stop me at first. But when they saw how well I played, they always said, “Ah, she’s good!” and let me stay.

As I got older the community became more critical. People asked my parents why they allowed their daughter to play in the streets with boys – it wasn’t proper. Femininity is a big part of the culture in Palestine; the idea that the woman should stay at home, help her mother, cook for her brothers. My parents tried to persuade me to stop. Their biggest fear was injury – whenever I went home injured they shouted: “Who can help you in Palestine if your tendon is torn or your spine is fractured?”

But when I concentrated on the ball, I forgot all this. Playing football makes me feel like I own the space. It gives me a sense of power.

I realised that I wanted to do something more with football in 2002, when the second intifada happened. I was 16, and our lives had completely stopped because of the occupation, the electricity and water cuts, and the curfews. My cousin Johnny was killed leaving the Church of the Nativity. I don’t agree with violence but I felt I needed to find a way to fight back. I started to think that I could use football as a way of showing that we have talent and are still strong, through fair play and unity. It can give people self-esteem when they’ve lost hope.

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In 2003, while I was at Bethlehem University studying business, Samar Araj Mousa, the head of athletics, saw me playing and suggested forming a female team. Most of the girls we tried to recruit objected that it was too masculine. Samar always pointed out that despite years of playing, I didn’t look like a man! In the end, we managed to convince four of my classmates to join Palestine’s first five-a-side women’s football team.

We only had men’s teams to play against back then, which helped the news of our wins to spread. Girls from other parts of the country began to get in touch. Eventually we built a squad for the full 11-a-side game, and bit by bit we built up a women’s league.

We trained on asphalt playgrounds with whatever equipment our families could afford. I had never heard of Nike or Adidas; my football boots were second-hand. Although the Palestinian Football Federation paid little attention to us, when we asked for recognition as the women’s national team in 2004, they granted it. In 2005, we played our first international match in Jordan. Though we lost to Jordan 9-0, we redeemed ourselves when we drew with them 2-2 at our first home international game in 2009. Everyone had expected us to lose again.

I was really upset when knee injuries stopped me from playing. But I continued coaching and managing the team. I work with refugee camps and clubs in Palestine, setting up football teams for kids. In July, I spoke at the United Nations Association UK conference. My dad is so proud now, and in 2005 my mum started coming along to cheer me when I played.

My classmates used to tell me that football wouldn’t give me a future, that I should give it up to find a husband and have a family. Many of our players left football after finding fiancés who didn’t approve. I do hope to find the right person to have a family with one day, but he would have to be open-minded enough to accept women’s talent, and my commitment to sport.

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