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Meet the Somali girls’ basketball team with big ambitions

In Somaliland, the idea of women and sport doesn’t often go together. But one girls’ basketball team is determined to spread their love of the game, despite societal pushback. 

For many Somalis, the idea of women and sport simply doesn’t go together. There is immense prejudice against women playing sports that can turn into open hostility.

This was the core challenge faced by the Hiil Hableed girls’ basketball team in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa. Although they played on a court where high walls hid them from public gaze, they were insulted in the streets and harassed on social media.

Some people, especially men, used religion to argue that women should stay at home and focus on domestic tasks instead of going out to play sports.

Things got even worse when Hiil Hableed’s court was closed down.

“We just stayed at home,” said team member Hafsa Omer. “After some months, the Hargeisa municipality gave us access to another court. But girls were allotted the hottest time of the day to play – between 1 and 4pm – with the cooler times given to the boys.”

“One day we hope to have our own basketball court,” she said. “Only then will our struggles be over.”

Despite challenges, the Hiil Hableed team are determined to keep playing and to encourage other girls to take up basketball.

On International Women’s Day, the Hiil Hableed team boarded a minibus and drove more than 200 kilometres to a boarding school in the beautiful town of Sheikh high up in the mountains.

The Pharo Foundation, which runs the school, invited them to hold a two-day basketball camp for girl boarders, not only to teach them how to play but also to show the high school students that sport is a key way to learn about teamwork and leadership.

A trustee of the foundation, Farah Jirdeh-Fonkenell, used to play basketball in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, before civil war broke out more than three decades ago. The insecurity and harsh social attitudes towards women today make it hard to believe that she played openly and without fear.

“The whole community would come out and watch us play matches,” says Ms Jirdeh-Fonkenell. “I would walk home with my teammates around 9 or 10pm. It was safe and nothing bad would ever happen to us.”

To do so today would be unthinkable.

Girls at Sheikh school are lucky to have a safe space to play, away from prying eyes and abuse. The basketball court was specially refurbished and new balls purchased, along with special jerseys and headscarves. New bedding was bought for the 16 members of Hiil Hableed who came for the camp.

About 30 teenage students joined in the training. Initially, they were hesitant and shy but quickly picked up confidence, learning how to dribble and shoot. Soon they were running about the court and leaping high into the air.

At the end of the second day, a friendly match was held between Hiil Hableed and the new Sheikh team. Although they had only learned how to play basketball the previous day, the boarding school girls gave the experienced team a run for their money.

After the camp, the schoolgirls said they couldn’t believe how just two days of basketball had increased their confidence and sense of purpose.

Ms Jirdeh Fonkonell of Pharo Foundation told the girls, “When I am 80, I still want to be running and moving. Brain activity and physical activity go hand in hand. The thing that made me want to achieve more than I could ever imagine always goes back to sports. Sports teaches you teamwork, camaraderie and how to think out of the box.”

Bilan is Somalia’s first all-women media team. Funded by the European Union through UNDP and hosted by Dalsan Media Group, Bilan shines a light on the issues women care about and offers a platform for women’s voices.