11 January 2020
All her life, Elham Balatone wanted to play soccer like her brothers.
However, in Sudan, where she lives, women could be arrested and beaten for putting on soccer clothing in the strict Muslim country.
She played anyway.
"There's nothing in this world that I love more than soccer. Please let me play," she said she told her family.
For years, she and other women played secretly.
Recently, Sudan's sports minister watched the women play in a sports center in the capital Khartoum where the country celebrated a new, official women's soccer league.
Even Balatone's family was happy about it.
The new league is about more than a game. Sudan is trying to move away from 30 years of leadership that followed Shariah, a strict understanding of Islamic law that limits what women can do.
Officials are making changes after the ouster of former President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. In November, officials canceled a "public order" law that, activists say, had been used to discriminate against women.
But not everyone is happy. Some extreme religious conservatives are pushing back.
Preacher AbdulHay Yousif and others have said permitting women to play soccer will "destroy religion and morals."
"What manhood would allow a Muslim woman to appear before men...with her arms, legs...exposed and then run before them?" Yousif asked religious followers in October just as the league began.
He also said Sudan's minister for sport and youth, a woman, "doesn't believe in what we believe in. He called her "an apostate." This has resulted in legal action between them.
Another pro-Shariah group called on preachers to "expose the government's secularization plots."
Critics argue that some conservatives are using the methods of the former president al-Bashir. They say he criticized political enemies using religious language to control women and stop change.
Yousif's words have not affected the league. But Taghreed Awoda, an official for one of the teams, said the argument was a part of the greater fight for change.
Awoda said "to have a women's soccer league play in Sudan," destroys the world al-Bashir created.
Under al-Bashir, laws that controlled women and their clothing targeted the poor, uneducated and political activists, Awoda said. Women players were usually left alone if they played quietly although one group of women was arrested for a short time.
"Now the moment has come when they can show people that women could play just like men," said Amany Anas, a player for the al-Tahadi team.
The players said there is no conflict between their religion and soccer.
"I pray and I perform my Islamic duties. I see no problem," Anas said.
I'm Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
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Words in This Story
soccer – n. a game (more commonly called football) played between two teams of 11 players in which a round ball is moved toward a goal usually by kicking
strict – adj. demanding that people obey rules or behave in a certain way
league – n. a group or club
preacher – n. one who teaches religious views
allow –v. to permit, to let happen
expose – v. something that is open for everyone to see
apostate – n. someone whose beliefs have changed and who no longer belongs to a religious or political group
secularization – n. the process of removing religion from something