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‘Shoe Size 37’: Spotlight on Women’s Football in Egypt

‘Shoe Size 37’: Spotlight on Women’s Football in Egypt
written by
Haisam Awad

Sunday, June 26th marked the launch
of the 2011 Women’s World Football Cup in Germany. The men’s version has been
going strong since the inaugural tournament in Uruguay in 1930, while the
women’s tournament only began as a regular competition in 1991; that’s 61 years
later. There’s a palpable buzz ringing around this year’s tournament. World
football regulating body FIFA has thrown its weight behind the women’s
tournament, especially financially. Coverage will be more comprehensive and
extensive than it has ever been.

German photographer Claudia Wiens launched
her exhibition ‘Shoe Size 37’ at El Sawy Culturewheel on June 25th. The
exhibition is sponsored by the Goethe Institute and showcases a selection of
Wiens’ photographs of women’s football in
Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and Germany. Wiens is no stranger to Egypt, having
lived between here and Istanbul for almost ten years, and she has a near fluent
grasp on the Arabic language.

There’s no real running theme in Wiens’ toil, as
can be seen by some of her most recent work, which includes photography books Coptic
Life in Egypt
and Of Dung-beetle
Messengers and Infamous Crickets
, as well as smaller projects such as
women’s wrestling in Mexico. The only theme that may be
wrung out of her work is that of the marginalised and the omitted.

‘Shoe Size 37’ highlights quite differing
issues between the state of women’s football in the four chosen locations. In
Egypt, the scope varies. There is a competitive two-tier league for example,
and the Wadi Degla Women’s Team is the league’s most recently successful, which
is in no small part down to their financial backing. They are afforded
equipment, transport and a decent quality pitch on which to train and host
games. On the other end of the scale,
there are smaller clubs that cannot provide a training pitch for their players.
Instead, they play on concrete pitches or sandy and unkempt fields.

Problems are similar in Palestine, with the
added dilemma of teams being unable to meet for weeks on end because of
travelling restrictions in the war-torn area. Their German and Turkish peers are
fighting a different battle. Unless you are lucky enough to pilfer an unlikely
sponsorship deal, the money available in women’s football is still pittance at
its most competitive level.

Wiens pays tribute to Dr. Sahar El Harawy,
a pioneer and iconic figure of women’s football both in Egypt and all over the
world. Along with a team of scouts and coaches, El Harawy has recruited and
trained young aspiring female footballers on her own dime over the years. She
has championed the women’s game in this country in the face of opposition,
whose biggest objection has been the idea of women wearing shorts in public.

Even two awards from the International Olympic Committee and worldwide
recognition haven’t had the impact that you’d expect them to. In 2001, El Harawy
received an IOC award for her contributions to the advancement of women’s
football, and in 2004 she was nominated by FIFA President Sepp Blatter to
receive another IOC award that had been awarded to FIFA for the same cause; an
honour that probably exceeds the first one. Despite this, it seems that these
recognitions were only celebrated within the women’s football community.

The Egyptian people are a visual nation,
and so it’s a shame that the women’s national team hasn’t qualified for this
year’s tournament in Germany. Seeing the team representing the country abroad
may have had a significant impact back home. The Goethe Institute is doing its
part in trying to screen as many of the games as possible. But this all begs to
question what the future for women’s football is in Egypt. European and
American players are still paid little, and most are either students or have to
balance their football with fulltime jobs. What chance do these women have?

This exhibition will inevitably be received
by some as a sort of pseudo-political feminist statement of a project, and it
might well be. There’s a naivety and innocence about it, though. Wiens admits
to having little to no knowledge about football, and so what she has seen
through her lens are groups of ambitious girls and women at different stages of
the same dream.

And this is the crux of the exhibition; it isn’t very
necessarily about football at all, but about the regretful undervaluing of
young women in Egypt and in other countries. This isn’t a complete story of woes;
there’s a hope that rings through the exhibition, and Wiens’ charm, modesty and
free spirit come across in spades in her photos and subjects.