In sport we shouldn’t choose women for tokenism, many are experts and should be recognised – Middle East Monitor
Kicking a ball for the first time across the dizzying maze of streets in Bethlehem with the neighbourhood boys, seven-year-old Honey Thaljieh never dreamed about making history.
Yet, 12 years later in 2003, as a student at Bethlehem University, she co-founded the Palestinian Women’s National Football Team. And in 2012, she became the first Arab woman to obtain a FIFA Master and work at FIFA.
Even as she faced hurdles and pitfalls along the way due to conservative attitudes and gender stereotypes, reflective of a patriarchal society, Honey didn’t consider giving up.
“I had no other options. I grew up in very difficult circumstances where my parents couldn’t afford anything else besides education and there were five of us. I have two brothers and two sisters, and I had no other tools or toys to fulfil my time as a child. So, my only option was to kick around with the boys in the street because that’s the only opportunity I had for myself.”
Honey explains that playing with the boys her age and older and scoring goals on the makeshift football posts strengthened her character and made her more determined to win and create spaces for females in the sport which was previously limited to males.
The moment her feet caught the ball after the boys tried hard to avoid passing it over to her, Honey dribbled the ball with the greatest control across the street with a blistering pace and effortlessly scored goals.
The moves were spontaneous and instinct, she says.
“I found that I run well and dribble and catch the ball well. At first, the boys didn’t want to pass the ball to me because I was the only girl, but after they saw how good I played, they started fighting to have me on their teams.”
Football under occupation was rarely straightforward; however the discovery of her talent and complete control of the ball was a breath of fresh air from the day-to-day obstacles and restrictions imposed by the state of Israel.
Like other towns and villages in the occupied West Bank, the old city of Bethlehem is surrounded by illegal settlements and constricted by the illegal Separation Wall, leaving residents constantly under the watch of illegal Israeli soldiers.These restrictions also mean the national women’s team rarely gets to train together.
Honey – who describes the bond between herself and football as lifelong – currently serves on the Palestinian High Council for Youth and Sport and is communications manager for Special Projects at FIFA, where she works on initiatives related to gender equality, education and peace through football. She is also recognised as a Champion for Peace by the organisation Peace and Sport and serves as an ambassador for several pro-social sports organisations including ambassador for Athletic Bilbao Club from 2023.
“Of course, I’m very honoured with these titles but it didn’t come by just chance or luck. There were in fact a lot of challenges and hard work to get to where I am today and it’s a huge responsibility to sustain and continue the goals I am achieving through my advocacy work and setting great examples for boys and girls in my country and beyond. The more titles you achieve, the more responsibility it comes with.”
She took this practical route following the series of injuries she suffered in 2009, when her career as a star striker came to an end, an event she describes as the most painful moment of her life.
“After I got injured, I knew I couldn’t let go of football because the sport is my life. And more than that, I wanted to go beyond Palestine. I wanted to show the world a different story about Palestine and the Palestinian people, more specifically, the Palestinian women, who are all capable and can live life abundantly should they want to play and pursue a career in football.”
“Football is fair play and opens doors for opportunities across the world which led me to start a masters sports management programme with FIFA after which I was selected for an internship out of the 33 candidates who had applied.”
While most would buckle under the pressure, Honey fell in love with the complexities of her roles due to their endless possibilities and the chance to use them to build a more fair, accessible world.
“See, what helps and drives me is my authenticity, the chance to be bold about who I am to get what I need doing, regardless of what and how people try to define me. As a Palestinian, Arab, woman living in the world today, working in Europe, I refuse to allow all these prejudices the world tries to put on people like us.”
As much as her religion, ethnicity and nationality play a defining role in her personality and experiences – Honey, a Palestinian Christian, emphasises that it should be the individual’s qualifications and talent in football that determine their position in the field.
“We need to include and have more women with experiences and correct qualifications, it shouldn’t all be about including women just to tick a box and be used for tokenism,” she notes. “They should be approached because they’re experts and there are plenty if you give them the opportunity and this is exactly what my job requires me to look out for and address.”
“The mindset of the organisations of systems are so fixed in one way because till today since the beginning of their establishment, the majority is made up of men. It’s male directors, male team leaders and managers, we need to see more women in these positions because it’ll be the women who look out for and open doors for more women.”
With the 2023 Women’s World Cup now just weeks away, marking a major milestone for women working in football, attitudes towards women in sport are, to some extent, changing, with more progressive attitudes towards equal pay and investment in women’s games.
This year’s Women’s World Cup will be jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand and is scheduled to take place from 20 July to 20 August.
Since taking up the role at FIFA, Honey has established the FIFA Annual Conference for Equality and Inclusion and has overseen a number of social development projects at international youth tournaments including the Homeless World Cup Champions.
Honey credits her mother – who stuck by her in every way she could – for backing her dream since she was seven.
“When things like a girl playing football were controversial in our community, it was my mother who gave me the power to go on in her own shy and limited ways,” she explains. “Without her support, I wouldn’t have managed to overcome those challenges.”
“But things are changing, and I’m glad to have been part of that. But on the international level, we need to reach a stage where we don’t need to mention the minority part of us to be recognised. We have the right to feel our qualifications and experiences are enough to earn our rightful positions, just like men. And I’ll keep working hard and using my platform at FIFA to get us there.”