Defying the Norms of My People

"I dream of using football to empower girls and women in Palestine"

It can be hard sometimes to do things because you fear what people might think, right? Well I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be.

If I could do it as a young person – then you can do it too.  Sometimes it might seem difficult, but when it does, think of me.

We’re in this together.

For years I have faced the pressures of a sexist society – one that says it is not right for girls to play football and that it is not right for us to have short hair.

But I sit here today with my hair cut short and as the top scorer of my football team.

I am Aya Mazen Habayeb, a young leader at Palestine Sports For Life.

I’ve been depressed and psychologically low, but football has changed my life.

Now I dream of using football to empower girls and women in Palestine and, because my country is occupied, spread the game of football to other districts to combat limited activities in all of Palestine.

Let me show you how it has given me resilience to face the external challenges of a judgemental society head on.

Playing football as a girl in my country is not easy. I mean, the game itself is no different, but society’s views of me as a female footballer can be quite confrontational and challenging.

Football is considered a male sport here and when I began to play at PS4L I was faced with many negative comments.

It may have been easy for me to quit as a result, but I would not be deterred by my communities’ beliefs, instead, I wanted to challenge their views and prove to everyone that I can be a great football player.

I am so glad that I did because football has had such a positive effect on me and my life.

On one level, physically, I feel so much more athletic and have become much more conscious of my health.

On another, educationally, it has helped me become much more efficient with my time. Just like with football, education needs time, dedication, and perseverance and now I am performing better in school than I ever have in my life.

Through football, I have learned the importance of taking both victories and defeats in my stride. I used to get extremely frustrated and unmotivated when losing little things in life, like you wouldn’t believe.

Now, I have learned that like on the pitch, in life we will face many challenges, many ups and downs, many wins and many losses. But it is not our failures in life that define us; rather it is how we decide to act when faced with them.

Before the PS4L football programme I had never dealt with non-related males before, but when I became a part of the football team, I had male coaches; gaining confidence in interacting with those of the opposite gender. With my male coaches, I started to express my opinions better without being shy or hesitant.

I found myself becoming more social and less shameful in speaking up for what I believe in. I have become more articulate in precisely expressing my opinions.

This is because, through the programme, we engage in team discussions which allows me to voice my opinion in front of my peers. I learned to respect the opinions of others by listening as well.

With the football team, we have great communication and listen attentively to each other. When my teammates hear my complaints and comments on our games, I feel happy for being heard and respected, this is why I make sure to do the same for others in my daily life.

As a football player, I learned that by focusing on making a goal on the field I should do the same in my life. I learned that I should do whatever it takes to find opportunities and achieve my life goals.

I learned how to support, motivate and encourage others, just like my coach does with us on the team. I love to motivate everyone around me, this includes my own family and classmates.

Imagine if I hadn’t of persevered? All of these great benefits to my life would be gone. All of the valuable lessons would have gone unlearned. That is something to bear in mind anytime you feel like giving in to the pressures of misplaced beliefs in society.

I prefer to go one further, and send them a challenge of my own.

I question the customs and traditions of my close relatives and teachers in school. Both have sexist views on the role of women and girls and are against me playing football, so they often show disapproval towards my passion for playing.

For example, one thing I am often confronted about is my hair.

Many people within my society believe a girl should have long hair. I have short hair, so I have experienced relatives, community members and teachers comment on its length. I am grateful to my family, close friends, and trainer for being by my side during difficult times when others judged my opinion, physical appearance, and passion.

But the football and my appearance are not the only things I have received snide comments about.

I faced much disproval from society when I started attending a gym to maintain and improve my physical fitness. The disdain and negative views challenged me to stay true to myself and continue doing what feels right and makes me happy.

I did not stop going to the gym and continued to prioritize my health and passion instead of caving into society's words.

I should want to be the best player I can be, right? Well to be the best version of yourself then you must work hard!

Thanks to PS4L’s football program, I made new friends on the team and have been positively supported and encouraged by the trainers, especially while facing hardship and failure. For them, as should be, short hair, football and going to the gym are absolutely fine.

The support of my team and coach during hard times in my life, when I felt depressed and psychologically unsteady, was met with support and empathy. These moments made me recognize that I am not alone and that I have a team behind me to give me support!

Football made me relish challenges; I love to encounter challenges and face them head-on while believing in myself and my capabilities.

The Coronavirus has been tough on us all in different ways. For me, it has definitely been the time I have spent away from the football pitch. Football is not just a leisurely activity I do in my spare time, no, football has become an important part of my life.

I have big dreams and wishes for the future and every one of them involves a grassy pitch!

I hope I can become a top player at one of the best clubs and graduate with good grades in secondary school along the way.

Don’t fear what people might think of you, fear not following your dreams.