The World Cup, an international men’s football tournament which occurs every four years, has just ended. Whether you are an ardent football fan like me or a patriot whose national team made it to the World Cup, this was an exciting, adrenaline-filled month.
But as a feminist this was the time for a lot of questioning. The football industry bursts with sexism, and nothing much is being done about it. Not only is it a male-dominated industry, with clear gender inequities faced by women who are part of it as well as the lack female voice and representation generally, its followers are some of the sexist and misogynistic lot I have ever encountered.
During this period, I saw both overt and subtle sexism on a daily basis. 35 incidences of sexual harassment and assault were recorded in Moscow alone! We heard chants in the streets of Russia such as ‘you’re shit but your birds are fit’ or ‘go home to your ugly wives’, chants which are often dismissed as harmless football banter. We saw the despicable manners in which female journalists were treated on and off camera. We saw the ‘babe cam’ that often zoomed a little longer onto young women with a certain look. We read baleful online trolls and comments, and we saw the most blatant sexist TV ads by major companies. The sentiment was echoed across, it was the most sexist world cup ever!
So what is happening? Why is there so much backlash against women?
Here is the depressingly, unsurprising truth: sexism in football is an exact mirror of the society we live in today, and the realities of women across the world. What we observed is not just ‘a regrettable error in judgement’ as a certain famous photo agency said when they published ‘the hottest fans at the World Cup’ that featured pictures of young women exclusively. Sexism is a deliberate prejudice against women and the inherent belief that women are second class citizens and should be treated so.
Football is deeply adored on the African continent. First, it offers this misconstrued narrative of what the ideal masculinity is, which breeds prejudice against men who don’t care about the sport; these men are seen as unmanly and gay. Furthermore, it is considered as a preserve of men. Since women are generally perceived as disinterested in football or somehow unable to understand the rules of the games, our legitimacy as football fans is often questioned. I have been told I watch football to please or seek a man’s attention, or simply because there are good looking men on the pitch. And once you are accepted in the clique, you are forced to downplay your femininity to fit into the fandom identify.
Second, and perhaps more chilling, is that sometimes football comes with a cost for many women victims of intimate partner violence. We already know that globally 1 in 4 women is a victim of domestic violence. But did you know that research shows these numbers increase to more than 30% during the football season? Women become the punching bag, especially when one’s favourite team loses.
Days before the World Cup season, posts were shared on social media that centred around rules for women during the tournament, which reminded them of their place as supportive wives who under no circumstances should not question or anger their men. For instance, women were reminded to keep silent while a game in ongoing; not to ask about rules of football and to ensure men do not run out of beverages. This is not only highly patronizing to women as it assumes we have nothing to bring to the table, but it also reinforces male chauvinism as an acceptable and widespread behaviour.
I am happy that women have gradually been calling out against sexism in the football industry. Petitions have been launched; sexist ad campaigns have cancelled as a result of pressure from lobby groups; online posts were removed and campaigns that portray women in football positively have been launched. But this is not enough.
The football world is still a very hostile environment for women. Little has been researched and documented to understand the link between sport, masculinity and violence. So we need to have these conversations and understand how they affect women. A lot has been invested in the campaign to kick racism out of football. If only equal amounts of energy were employed to speak out against sexism and how detrimental it is to women. Saying no to sexism in football is not just about claiming the right of women to participate in the sport, it should also extend to calling out against the misogyny that has become an everyday reality for women around the world.