First Published: 2005-05-11

 
Iraqi women defy threats to play softball
 

Women have formed six teams who compete in nationwide championship of invaders softball.

 

Middle East Online

By Karim Sahib - BAGHDAD

Some Iraqis associate softball with 'American invaders'

Iraq's first female softball team practises daily and in an atmosphere of fear.

In this deeply conservative society, many object to women showing themselves off in public, while others dislike the game they play because of its association with the "American invaders".

Softball, a form of baseball, was banned under ousted leader Saddam Hussein, who viewed it as a product of US imperialism.

Now, a year after it first took off at Baghdad's sports academy, women have formed six teams who compete in a nationwide championship.

But training at the Baghdad academy is difficult - the field is rough and the grass dying, the sun beats down harshly and the equipment, donated by neighbouring countries, has seen better days.

A dozen women, wearing blue outfits and with their long hair hidden under baseball caps or scarves, begin exercises with stretching and a short run.

"I love this sport because it's new," says Zina Tariq, 19, wearing just a touch of make-up.

"But it requires a lot of effort and training," says the student whose father was a famous football player in the 1960s.

"The team is like a family. We're united by real friendship and passion," says Lamis Wael, 21, from behind a pair of black sunglasses.

"At first, we didn't even know the rules of the game, nor even how big the field was supposed to be," she says.

The women must run a daily gauntlet of car bombings and shootings to turn up for training.

"Because of the heat, we must train early in the morning or late in the evening. For the girls, those are dangerous times. They can be kidnapped or killed," says their trainer Ismail Khalil, who also heads the national baseball federation.

To reassure the families, the federation has laid on buses to ferry the players to and from their practice sessions.

"Our parents are worried even if things have improved because of the buses," says Zikra Jassem, 20, considered the best player and who wears a veil while playing.

"I'm afraid the girls will lose heart if something happens to one of them," Zina Tariq said.

Lamis Wael says she's been insulted in the street because she plays sports. But "I've chosen to study sports and my family supports me," she added.

Amer Jabbar, the deputy chairman of Iraq's Olympic committee which finances the new sport, concedes there are "negative reactions amongst Iraqis and even within the committee" to softball.

"It's a game that comes from the United States and the Americans are seen as invaders," he says.

The 20 best female players have been invited to a training camp in the United States in July.

"My mother doesn't want me to go, but I hope she'll change her mind," says Zikra Jassem.

"It's the chance of a lifetime," she adds, with a broad smile.

 

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