“In Palestine football gives us identity” FIFA’s Honey Thaljieh on fighting oppression with football

Honey Thaljieh was seven years old when she had her first taste of football in the streets of her neighbourhood in Bethlehem. “The first time I kicked a ball, I felt like I was in paradise,” says Thaljieh. “It was close to a big stone and I was so excited to kick the ball I kicked my foot on the stone instead!”

But it didn’t matter. “I felt really good and I thought this is where I belong, this is me this. I felt like this ball really belongs to me and I want to fight for it.”

As a young woman playing football, and living under occupation in the West Bank, Thaljieh had to overcome cultural and political barriers to pursue the sport she loves.

But her determination helped her go from playing in the narrow streets of Bethlehem to co-founding and captaining the first women’s football team in Palestine. Her proudest moment remains representing her country for the first time in a match against Jordan in 2009.

Even a career-ending knee injury couldn’t completely take her out of the game. What could have been a cruel twist of fate set her on a path to encouraging more women to participate in sport. Thaljieh became the first woman in the Middle East to obtain a FIFA Master in sports education. In her current role as corporate communications manager for FIFA, Thaljieh travels the world to promote social inclusion and gender equality both on and off the pitch.

She spoke to INSP whilst she was in Amsterdam in her role as an ambassador for the Homeless World Cup.

FIFA's Honey Thaljieh. Credit: Alex Walker

You grew up in Bethlehem, where football is not widely considered a sport for women. Did you encounter any opposition from your family?

I grew up with a lot of motivation and determination. Even in my house, I was the only one who would say no to my father. To say no to your father in the Middle East in that patriarchal society is not easy. Sometimes you face punishments, but I never worried about that because I was so determined.

I always wanted to play football because I forgot everything and focused on the game. I found that it was an escape from all the problems we faced in Palestinian society, whether it was political, cultural or social.

I wanted to play football – it’s just a game, a beautiful game that gave me the energy to go on. If I’m not convinced why you tell me ‘no’, I will not accept it and I would challenge it. It’s the same, not only with my dad, but wherever I go.

“The first time I kicked a ball, I felt like I was in paradise.”

You were one of the first women to openly play football in the West Bank and co-founded the Palestinian women’s football team. How did you do it?

It started in Bethlehem University where I studied. I started to think, ‘why don’t we have a team instead of just playing in the streets everywhere?’

We wanted an organised team that also fights for identity, perception and recognition, because football started to become more than a game for me and for my teammates. It was about many other things – it was about pride, self-esteem and also fighting against our circumstances, even against culture itself, and against the occupation that we grew up in. I had all this determination to fight to have a women’s football team, so when I went to University I met the sports director. With her support, we did it.

How did you find and recruit players?

It was very challenging but you know in each place you need to have the first step, so I showed them that I was playing football and still looked good, feminine. In our community, people would say ‘it’s too physical, women will start to look like men, they lose their femininity’. I said no, it’s just football – like basketball or tennis, like every sport – it’s normal.

I started to promote that idea among girls in schools and universities. We started to recruit girls at Bethlehem University and once we had about five or six we started to go into the local community and then to other cities. We also had a lot of attention from the media, so then people heard about what we were doing in Jericho, Jerusalem, Ramallah. People then contacted us and said they are also interested to be part of this team.

The key thing was to convince the parents. We had to go to their homes and explain that their daughters are in good hands and that the university is taking care of them. It took a lot of hard work to convince them but the parents are now proud their daughter is playing for the national team because they see their daughters representing Palestine in different countries, travelling the world. It took time but it was not impossible.

Honey Thaljieh at the Homeless World Cup Amsterdam 2015. Credit: Romain KedochimTell us some of the main challenges you faced while playing and promoting women’s football in the West Bank and Middle East.

Those moments are many. We would miss connecting flights because passport control officers could never find Palestine on their computers. Sometimes they don’t know the code or they don’t even know what Palestine is.

Also, when we pass the borders in our own country to go out, because we are faced by occupation, we don’t travel by Tel Aviv. We have to go by Jordan which is extra time, extra money, extra energy.

Another challenge is that someone might be sent back and that was always crucial for us. We would always pray when we arrived that we would all pass no problem. We have had many delays and many players who didn’t make it to a tournament. For example, one time the coach was sent back and we were without a coach and that was just going from Palestine to Jordan. It’s not like going to Australia or China.

We would spend days just on the border. Imagine how exhausted we were even before we got to a tournament and have to then play and perform.

What about moving within the country to hold team practices?

When we started the national team we were from every part of the West Bank: so Ramallah, Jericho, Jerusalem. For us it was so hard to train in one place. Sometimes at training we would be missing players because their parents didn’t want them to travel at night because when passing borders we could be stuck at a check point until 1am, just going from Ramallah to Bethlehem.

Along the West Bank there were also curfews that would make trouble for us. That was a big challenge. It’s still going on. There is a freer movement of players but there is still a long way to go.

Given all the difficulties, was it worth it when you finally got to play?

Yes the best part is football itself. When we start to play on the pitch we forget everything – we forget the suffering at home, at the borders. We forget everything and just love to play football – especially if it is on a grass field!

We never got to play on a grass – it was always concrete or asphalt pitches and that was really hard for us. It was a great moment to finally play on a grass field and to meet different people from different and share experiences.

Travelling itself was good for the girls because it was like a window to the outside world through football. Regardless of what we faced in the country, for us it was really amazing to play and enjoy the game itself. In my teammates, you can see how football helped them to change their lives. They are all now coaches or working for organisations like Right to Play, to inspire others.

What kind of reception did you receive when you first played in public?

In 2009 we had our first international game in the Faisal al Husseini football stadium in Palestine against Jordan. We had 14,000 people there from all over Palestine. It was really a big game and historical moment. CNN and BBC covered it – there were many media from around the world.

Homeless World Cup ambassador Honey Thaljieh shows support in rainy Amsterdam. Credit: Romain Kedochim

To be on the pitch playing football, especially when they played the Fida’I [the Palestinian National Anthem] and you see all the people cheering for the team, waving flags, it was unbelievable. It was a touching moment because I’m from a not officially-recognised country. It always breaks our hearts that Palestine is not even recognised by the United Nations. [Palestine was granted ‘non-member observer state’ status in 2012 but is not a full member state of the UN. The US has indicated that it would veto any move to recognise it as such.]

It’s sad but it made me proud. At the beginning just to participate was important for us because it was a big message that we are here – we have our flag, we are representatives in this tournament. It doesn’t matter the results. Yes we did train hard, but for us that was more important than winning or losing.

Football gives us identity and that’s why we are here. Football put us on the map. It’s because of football, so it is honour, it is pride, it is self-esteem… it’s everything.

You suffered what would eventually become a career-ending knee injury in that match against Jordan. You overcame all those obstacles to play and then that happened…

Yes. That was my main challenge, forget about everything else! Of course we had to face wars and soldiers, and we survived, but my knee injury stopped me from playing football and that was the saddest moment because, for me, football is everything. It was really hard but I think that everything happens for a reason.

After my injury I decided to focus more on bringing people into sport, especially boys and girls from disadvantaged groups. I applied for the FIFA Masters programme and earned a qualification in sports education management and now I work at FIFA. It was sad moment but also a turning point to where I am now.

“Football gives us identity. Football put us on the map… so it is honour, it is pride, it is self-esteem. It’s everything.”

You’ve also worked with NGOs to develop grassroots programmes for young refugees…

I worked with NGOs in Palestine for sports encouragement, to ensure that kids have access to football. Mainly our focus was on refugees because I live in Bethlehem and in Bethlehem we have four refugee camps.

I’m not a refugee myself. I was born in the West Bank, blocked off by walls already. But refugees are in Bethlehem because they used to live in Haifa, Yafo [the Palestinian name for Tel Aviv], and they had to leave their cities because they were kicked from their homes. I grew up with them – they were in my schools, my neighbourhood so I felt we had a responsibility to support them to be part of their education, raise awareness and give them opportunities because they deserve to have the same chances as everyone else.

We started with after school programmes with refugee boys and girls in Palestine, then Gaza, but then the numbers started to increase. We have more than 7,000 children and expanded to Jordan and Lebanon. It was a great experience to see the difference football made in their lives and how it changed them. A few of the girls and many of the boys now play for the national Under 19 teams and Under 17 teams. Football changed their lives, it’s really powerful.

What kind of change did you see in the players?

It gave them self-esteem; it gave them the courage to move on and to fight to prove that they are existing with education with football. It made a huge difference.

The Iranian women’s team was banned from the Olympic qualifiers in 2011 for wearing Islamic headscarves – have you had much to do with them? Their challenges seem quite similar to yours.

The challenge is mainly with the patriarchal society and Islamic law in their country. In Palestine we don’t have it in our law that women should not play football or they shouldn’t travel for tournaments. We didn’t have that, thank God.

Credit: Alex WalkerFor them it’s a different story. It breaks my heart to hear that just recently one of the players was not allowed to go out because her husband decided that she couldn’t travel with the team. FIFA is doing things to support the Iranians – especially when we release a statement by our President Sepp Blatter that women should go to the stadium and support the team.

I think there will hopefully be progress if we keep pushing on government and people in Iraq to allow girls to play football and go to the stadiums, but it’s not easy. It takes time but hopefully we can keep that pressure.

What’s next in terms of your career at FIFA?

For me, positions don’t matter. I’m here to support people and I feel that I’m doing something good. It would be good to be in a position that I can make influential decisions in a good way to help support people and give chances to everyone. Where, it does not matter, as long as I can make decisions that help people dream and to make chances.

How does it feel to see increasing numbers of girls and women participate in football?

It’s great to see many girls participating in tournaments around the world. It always reminds me of where I started and where I have come to. That’s my message to everyone – don’t think there is something that is impossible.

We can make things possible even if we have nothing because I had nothing. It’s not like I was from a family who was connected to government or to politicians. I grew up in a modest family, I’m proud of my family. I never had connections with anyone. We had to fight for everything. I say to everyone you can make your future if you really fight, regardless of your circumstances there is always hope, always a way. You can make people believe in your story and once people believe in your story they will help. That’s how I got people to help me. Nothing is impossible.

People are more aware that women should play football all around the world regardless of their backgrounds or where they come from. Little by little people are starting to believe that football is for everyone. Through football there is a big hope for women to excel in this game and achieve their dreams. I always believe that once you empower women – not only in sport but art and music – you empower the whole community.

Photos courtesy of Alex Walker and Romain Kedochim – Soda Visual