The Challenge in Sudanese Women’s Football
Zein’s film exposes viewers to the enthusiasm of Sudanese girls and women for football, a sport that has grown significantly for women in the country since the 2000s. It also captures the challenges and political battles women have waged to play football in Sudan. Notably, one of Khartoum’s first women’s football teams, officially established in 2001, is called Al-Tahadi (“the challenge”).
Sudanese women footballers have faced religious condemnation, social stigmatization, police harassment and even arrest. Their experiences, however, vary greatly between different regions. In the South, local governments encouraged women to play freely both before and after South Sudan’s independence in 2011. In the West, girls are also encouraged to play football in public spaces. In the North—the focus of this article—women were largely discouraged from playing football under the conservative Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir. Even after the 2019 Revolution, women’s football remains socially contentious.
To get a sense of these challenges and the way Sudanese women are navigating them amid a changing political backdrop, we conducted interviews in Khartoum, Sudan, with two prominent women footballers: the first, Azhaar Sholgami, is a midfielder who has played for the team Al-Difaa. The second is Sara Edward, a former player and now coach at Al-Tahadi, who we spoke with over zoom. We also spoke with 12 other players who are active in women’s football teams in Khartoum during a focus group. The interviews took place between May and July 2022. Women described a series of challenges related to the Islamist regime and state in Sudan, which has actively sought to prevent women from playing football. They also pointed to the role of the Sudanese Football Association (SFA), an organization that has inhibited the formation of the women’s game while simultaneously taking money from international bodies to promote it.
In 2019, women’s football in Sudan received a major boost with the establishment of the first official national league. This development occurred in the same year as the revolution that successfully deposed Omar al-Bashir, only to be thwarted by the military coup in October 2021. Women’s football has a complex relationship with these political developments. Some of the footballers we interviewed believed the revolution positively impacted the women’s game. Others, however, were more skeptical. One player argued it was pure coincidence that the women’s national league was established the same year as the revolution and insisted that cultural attitudes toward women’s football have not changed. Their responses highlight the broader uncertainties about the present and future of women’s football in Sudan and their tenacity in pursuing the beautiful game.
Women’s Football and the Islamist Regime
Since its introduction in both North and South Sudan, football has been linked to colonial, gender, ethnic and religious politics. When it comes to the men’s sport, however, Islam has not historically been framed in opposition to football. Indeed, the SFA was first established in 1936, and over the following decade, prominent teams in northern Sudan began to adopt names influenced by Islamic history. The Khartoum North club was called “Kawther,” after the holy river in paradise, and one Omdurman-based team was named “Abbassia”—a neighborhood in Omdurman and a reference to Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle. As Christopher Tounsel argues, borrowing from Islamic history in the naming of football teams “points to the use of football as a means to celebrate symbols of anti-British resistance and inject Islam into the public sphere through sport.”
Along with Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa, Sudan was a founding member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and Khartoum served as the site of its first headquarters.
Following Sudan’s independence in 1956, men’s football continued to flourish and occupy a central place in the development of football in Africa. Newly independent Sudan hosted the first-ever Africa Cup of Nations in 1957. Along with Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa, Sudan was a founding member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), and Khartoum served as the site of its first headquarters. Under the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir (1989–2019), the number of registered football teams and stadiums continued to grow across the country. The rivalry between the two main men’s clubs, Al-Merrikh and Al-Hilal, became a central spectacle in Sudan, the games between the two clubs regularly resulting in over-capacity crowds.
In the 1990s, both the CAF and FIFA began pressuring football associations across Africa to establish female football teams, and from the early 2000s, the sport started to grow significantly. Unlike the men’s game, women’s football faced several direct attempts of suppression by al-Bashir’s Islamic authorities. The Islamic Fiqh Council in Sudan issued a series of fatwas in 2006, 2012 and 2016 targeting women’s football. The 2012 fatwa, issued directly in response to women requesting the establishment of a football league for women in Sudan, stated that:
… the permissible sport for a woman is one that protects her health. As for football, it should only be for men, and it does not suit women, and we must beware of everything that leads to the abolition of differences between men and women… and therefore we conclude to prevent the establishment of a women’s football league.
In addition to these official fatwas, imams in various neighborhoods also condemned and suppressed women’s football. Sara Edward described an incident in which an imam had watched a game her team played in the Ibad Alrahman neighborhood south of Khartoum. Displeased by the support of onlooking community spectators, the imam, in her words, “publicly declared his opposition against women playing football, encouraging the community to refuse such practices, as it opposes the Islamic shari‘a principles.”
The women footballers we spoke with challenged these interpretations and cited what they saw as a double standard particular to football. “Frankly, there is no verse or evidence from the sunna that prohibits women from playing football,” one told us. The players pointed out that the authorities and general public encouraged female gymnasts in Sudan, celebrating them as heroes: “Their issue is with playing football because football is generally known as a masculine sport. They ask you to play tennis or volleyball, because it’s a more feminine sport. They say those activities suit you more.”
The state under al-Bashir also tried to prevent women from playing football through legal means, using the Public Order law that included several provisional articles on citizens’ general appearance and dress code as well as their individual and social behavior. Edward and the other players told us about a game they played in 2009 against a male football team in the popular Khartoum neighborhood of Bahri. The next day, some of the women footballers received subpoenas stating that playing with males is haram (forbidden) under the Public Order law. Notably, according to the women, the men who played against them did not receive subpoenas. Following the revolution in 2019, the Public Order law and its designated police force were abolished, a welcome victory for the women footballers. The players we interviewed suggested that external pressure on the SFA from international sporting bodies like FIFA also greatly contributed to the establishment of a women’s league in Sudan.
FIFA and the Sudan Football Association (SFA)
On May 25, 2001, the establishment of the first Sudanese women’s team, Al-Tahadi, took place on the grounds of the Catholic Comboni College in Khartoum, known then as the “Olympics Club.” Initially, Al-Tahadi was led by SFA member Joseph Escobar and acted as an informal national team. Until 2019, women’s football teams remained unofficial and unrecognized by FIFA due to complications presented by the SFA and the Islamic regime. Throughout the years, the Islamic Fiqh Council in Sudan aggressively condemned FIFA’s requests to create a national team.
Although the SFA supported the creation of Al-Tahadi, women players view the organization as an obstacle to the development of the game. In our conversations, they described the SFA as actively engaging in what we identify as “gender washing,” using the women’s team to gain status with international sporting bodies even as it misappropriated funds or followed the Fiqh Council in preventing the establishment of a national team. In 2021, FIFA President Gianni Infantino visited Khartoum and stressed the importance of the women’s game to football’s development in Sudan. During the visit, he also attended a women’s football training session. Women footballers viewed this incident with cynicism. One player told us, “The SFA only contacts the female players if there is a show game. And in their reports, they mention fake activities to FIFA to ensure the continuity of receiving financial support.” Another player added, “The SFA doesn’t mind taking dedicated funds for women footballers from FIFA and then agrees with the prohibition of women from playing inside or outside Sudan for religious reasons.
In May 2022, the SFA withdrew the national women’s football team from the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations’ (CECAFA) league due to a lack of proper training and resources. This move angered women players, who stressed that they received no support from the SFA for their development or practice. They had trained and purchased necessary equipment on their own and paid to use private parks for practice. Players described how, in the past, a women’s union within the SFA had provided monetary funds to the Academy Ground (a private sports club) to host female teams and allow them to play for free. New management at the Academy Ground ended their agreement with the women’s union, which meant women players were now required to pay the fees themselves. The administration has recently cut funding further, despite the recent growth of the women’s game. “It is clear that the current administration clearly doesn’t want the girls to play nor to be watched playing,” one player told us. “They also kick us out of the ground whenever male players come. They prioritize the male footballers over the female.”
In our conversations, they described the SFA as actively engaging in what we identify as “gender washing,” using the women’s team to gain status with international sporting bodies even as it misappropriated funds
In addition to the lack of investment, the SFA has also inhibited the women’s league through poor planning. One player described a tournament in 2022 that had been scheduled to take place at eight o’clock in the morning during the summer months. She explained, “The eight o’clock time slot attracts a very minimal audience, not to mention that the heat is unbearable and the players have actual jobs and schools to attend.” When the women asked about switching to a later hour, they were told the evening hours were usually reserved for male players.
The lack of formal representation for women footballers at the SFA poses another formidable issue. Women footballers have no credible, official and responsive platform to voice their experiences. Edward recalled, “The SFA appointed many people with no experience or relevance to the sport itself, nor any knowledge about the challenges in the field to leading women’s football in Sudan. They had no clear plan of how to proceed and develop the players or the field.”
The State of Women’s Play Today
Despite the many challenges facing the sport, in 2019, the same year as the revolution that toppled Omar al-Bashir, the first formal women’s football league was created in Sudan. The first national women’s team was founded shortly after. These events gained significant exposure in the national media and social media, furthering the growth and visibility of the women’s game in the country. As a result, increasing numbers of women players are joining the league. According to current estimates, there are 720 women players and 21 participating teams from all over Sudan. Sholgami and Edward both stressed the positive impact of the revolution, which they credit for enabling the creation of the long-awaited league.
Other players dispute the extent to which the revolution contributed to the establishment of the league, suggesting the timing was a coincidence. One player explained, “There is no link between the revolution and the current scene of women’s football in Sudan. The SFA is bound to establish the tournaments due to the continuous pressure and threats from FIFA to freeze their activities in the country.”
Their skepticism might stem from the wider cynicism about women’s status in the wake of the revolution. As one player put it, “Both before and after the revolution, we are being harassed by the society. This is not an issue that would change by a revolution.” The Islamic authorities, like the fiqh council and some sheikhs, have continued their disapproval of women’s football and issued anti-football fatwas. Women’s matches are still played in closed areas for fear of social stigmatization. Further complicating matters, even Islamic figures associated positively with the revolution have come out against women playing football. Two “revolutionary” sheikhs, for instance, condemned the establishment of the first women’s football league. Sheikh Abdelhai Yousif publicly accused women players and their supporters in the civilian government of “threatening to divide Islam.”
In September 2021, the national team made its first appearance in the Arab Women’s Cup. The game was unsuccessful in terms of performances on the pitch—the Sudanese team lost 10-0 to host-country Egypt. For Sudanese women footballers, however, their participation was a major victory.
In September 2021, the national team made its first appearance in the Arab Women’s Cup. The game was unsuccessful in terms of performances on the pitch—the Sudanese team lost 10-0 to host-country Egypt. For Sudanese women footballers, however, their participation was a major victory. One month later, on October 25, 2021, a military coup ousted the revolutionary government. Due to the coup, the national team froze its registration in the Arab Women’s League. The insecure political situation following the coup and the return of suppression changed the course for women footballers. As one player phrased it, “After the coup, it all fell down; the national team split up, and in order to play any international match again we should start from scratch to create a new national team.”
The impact of the revolution and the coup on women’s football, much like on society more broadly, is still playing out in the streets of Sudan. Despite the many obstacles it continues to face, Sudanese women’s football boasts a growing national league and continued presence on the football scene with the potential to make an impact regionally and perhaps even internationally. Women in Sudan have shown they can overcome the challenges placed in front of them to play football competitively, but they are also clear about the negative impact the challenges have had on their ability to play at a regional and international level. They all agreed on a fundamental claim, one they will not compromise on: their right to play football freely.
[Sara Al-Hassan is an Urban researcher from Sudan and is currently a postgraduate student at the LSE. Deen Sharp is a Fellow in Human Geography in the department of geography and environment at the London School of Economics.]
 Christopher Tounsel, “Before the Bright Star: football in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 12/4 (August 2018), p. 735–753.
 ibid., p. 739.
 “Women Football in Sudan, Between People of Desires and People of Fatwas,” Alintibaha, February 15, 2012.
 “What did Sheikh Abdulhai Yousif say about the opening of women’s football in Sudan,” YouTube, October 4, 2019.