In African women’s football, homophobia still poses a barrier | Features


Nigeria’s hegemonic decades-long dominance over Africa’s girls’s soccer scene has lengthy masked a darkish secret: Brazenly gay gamers should not allowed.

The Tremendous Falcons are Africa’s most affluent nationwide crew, however this discriminatory angle has solid a shadow over their success and led to the ostracisation of gifted footballers over time.

In 2014, the Nigerian parliament handed a invoice into regulation prohibiting same-sex unions and making them punishable by as a lot as 14 years in jail.

Whereas homosexuality was already unlawful earlier than that, sports activities insiders say the edict was a backdrop for a concerted marketing campaign towards queer individuals in soccer.

‘As a result of they had been lesbians’

In a 2011 interview printed by the native Day by day Solar newspaper, former Nigeria Soccer Federation (NFF) technical assistant James Peters mentioned he had overseen the elimination of gamers from the ladies’s nationwide crew “as a result of they had been lesbians”.

Two years later, feedback made by Dilichukwu Onyedinma, then chairperson of the Nigeria Ladies’s Soccer League (NWFL) and member of the NFF, drew the eye of world soccer governing physique FIFA. In response to her categorical directive for the sacking and disqualification of “any participant that we discover is related to it [lesbianism]”, FIFA wrote to the NFF demanding clarification and reiterating its stance towards discrimination of every kind.

By advantage of its affiliation with FIFA and its implicit settlement to abide by the physique’s guidelines, the NFF is certified for grants and monetary help from the Zurich-based physique, and so it was within the curiosity of the nation’s high soccer brass to, on the very least, hold their discriminatory views in test.

That didn’t cease Seyi Akinwunmi, vp of the NFF, from laying the blame for the Tremendous Falcons’ failure to qualify for the ladies’s soccer occasion of the 2016 Olympic Video games on the alleged presence of homosexual gamers inside the squad.

“Lesbianism kills groups,” he claimed. A couple of months later, Nigeria claimed their ninth African crown.

“We [gay players] have determined to maintain working arduous and hopefully discover golf equipment in Europe, as a result of that’s the solely secure place to be your self,” one participant within the nation’s high flight informed Al Jazeera anonymously.

“There’s a WhatsApp group the place all of us speak and share info. My mother and father are conscious and unbothered that I’m a lesbian however they’re all the time nervous about my security in Nigeria. Every time the crew wins, it’s an awesome efficiency however after we lose, a few of these coaches are fast in charge it on ‘soiled lesbians’ and ‘evil gamers’.”

Continental impediment

Nigeria just isn’t the one nation in Africa with these attitudes towards girls in sports activities. South African Soccer Affiliation (SAFA) vice-president Ria Ledwaba surprised many again in 2005 when she lashed out on the nation’s nationwide girls’s aspect, Banyana Banyana, saying the gamers “have to discover ways to be girls”.

That she was the chairperson of SAFA’s girls’s committee on the time made the assertion much more impolitic. As an alternative of looking for to dismantle the excessive pay disparity between men and women on the nationwide crew degree – which President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed this week after the crew gained its maiden Ladies’s African Cup of Nations (WAFCON) title in Morocco – she was suggesting Banyana Banyana gamers wanted to attend etiquette courses.

In 2008, South African footballer and queer activist Eudy Simelane was gang-raped and stabbed a number of occasions, resulting in her demise.

Lesbians in Zimbabwe are being subjected to “corrective rape” and extreme violence by males attempting to “treatment” them of their sexual orientation, in line with human rights group ActionAid.

In Ghana, lesbian footballers dwell in concern. Homosexual intercourse is already punishable within the West African nation with a jail time period of three years. A invoice proposed in 2021 seeks to extend jail phrases to as much as a decade and drive some to endure “conversion remedy”, the place makes an attempt are made to alter individuals’s sexuality.

A scapegoat

In 2004, aged simply 18, Cynthia Uwak made her worldwide debut for Nigeria; her efficiency immediately introduced her as a star to be careful for.

The attacker was a key a part of the Tremendous Falcons’ runs on the 2004 and 2006 WAFCON and was adjudged Africa’s finest participant by the Confederation of African Soccer (CAF) in 2006 and 2007. There was an unmistakable sense amongst pundits, business insiders and followers that this was a participant of really historic potential.

Nevertheless, as she turns 36 this July, she has gone near 12 years since her final look for Nigeria.

After lacking the 2010 WAFCON attributable to an damage, she was surprisingly dropped from the Tremendous Falcons’ squad to the World Cup the next 12 months. Apart from unsuccessful calls by members of the general public to recall her to the nationwide crew in 2016, Uwak has merely vanished from the general public eye.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, she mentioned her exclusion from the nationwide crew was on account of her sexual choice. “Among the finest gamers had been neglected of the squad as a result of they had been practising lesbians,” she confirmed.“It was a very long time in the past, however it’s one thing I nonetheless keep in mind as a result of that was why I ended enjoying within the nationwide crew.”

Former worldwide Eucharia Uche, who was the Nigeria coach from January 2009 to October 2011, made headlines when she mentioned homosexuality was a “soiled subject” whereas talking to the New York Instances on the eve of the 2011 World Cup.

Whereas Uche claimed she didn’t witness overt lesbian expression, she nonetheless made it her enterprise to handle “sturdy rumours” to that impact by means of recourse to “divine intervention”.

Uwak mentioned she was surprised by Uche’s remarks, calling them hypocritical, and claimed Uche was herself a closeted gay throughout her enjoying days.

“[Uche’s comments] really swept me off my toes,” the previous Olympique Lyon ahead mentioned. “Like, whoa! These are the individuals you seemed as much as and so they had been practising this identical factor they condemned you about. They even dropped you. That’s like attempting to take meals out of any person’s mouth. That was what Uche Eucharia did.”

Uwak additionally mentioned she was actively persecuted for her sexual identification.

“I by no means hid my identification,” Uwak mentioned. “I needed to stand my floor though these individuals did that to me at a young age. They kicked me out, tried to make me a scapegoat.”

‘Not a problem’

Chatting with Al Jazeera 11 years on, Peters says he regrets his prior stance, one which was born out of a “Christian, cultural and efficiency perspective”. Whereas his statements made him a pariah internationally and culminated in him shedding his place of privilege inside the construction of Nigerian soccer, he insists he arrived at his change of coronary heart by means of re-education and a reappraisal of the world.

“I don’t share that time [of view] any longer,” he mentioned. “ The world is a distinct place and we simply need to dwell with it, work with it, and accommodate it. It’s not a problem.”

Uche, when contacted for a response to Uwak’s feedback, declined to remark by insisting she “doesn’t wish to be part of points”. On his half, Akinwunmi claimed that his phrases had been taken out of their supposed context.

For Uwak, there’s a lingering scepticism that there’ll ever be a real change of angle towards lesbians in Africa, each typically and in soccer particularly.

“It’ll by no means occur in Africa as a result of, every thing, they time period it witchcraft,” she mentioned. “They wish to pray and ship a homosexual individual, or they like you conceal your sexuality. It might solely change if individuals hold pushing.

“Don’t let society make you, and don’t dwell another person’s life.”

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