Tibetan Women’s Soccer and the Politics of International Sports

Women have been playing soccer for as long as soccer itself has existed. Yet, it is still a largely (cis)male-dominated sport.

On June 2, 2015, the BBC World Service aired a 25-minute radio documentary called “Soccer Nuns.”  The story follows several Tibetan women who are part of the “Snow Lionesses” Tibetan women’s soccer team and exposes the challenges they face to gain recognition. Coach Cassie Childers has been training the girls in Dharamsala, India. She notes that all the training and hard work endured by the girls is a way of  building up to 2017, where they hope to make the first Tibet’s women’s national team debut. However, Childers confesses that “China is very threatened by the existence of a Tibetan football team, and they try to make it impossible for us to play matches.”

Lhamo Kyi is 19 years old. In the segment, she states that her dream is to “one day play soccer in the FIFA Women’s World Cup.” Kyi’s reveals that her brother Tsetan Dorjee was detained by the Nepali authorities during the 2008 March to Tibet campaign, and inspires her to represent the Tibetan people’s struggle.

16-year-old Yangchen escaped Tibet a decade ago. “My parents wanted me to live in a free society… I never regretted that decision because we have to face that separation at the end,” Yangchen proclaims. “We can show the world that Tibet is our country and not China’s.”

According to FIFA, the governing body of international football, “soccer for young girls in many parts of the world is often considered […] a solely recreational activity [owing to] cultural barriers, social mores and the lack of any financial hope for a future in the game.” FIFA currently recognizes 23 non-sovereign entities as football teams but refuses to recognize Tibet. Pressure from the Chinese government has influenced their recent decisions over the years.

Recognizing the importance of organized sports as a means to empower women has been a challenge in many countries around the world. In one New York Times article, a similar story is related about young Afghan women dealing with the same frustration felt by the Tibetan women’s soccer team. More than a mere recreational activity, the opportunity to participate in athletics has provided a major platform for an otherwise marginalized group of young refugee women.

As Yangchen tells us, “It is more than a soccer camp — it’s about unity, it’s about politics, and it is also about raising your own voice.”

*You can support the Tibetan women’s soccer program by donating to their fundraising campaign.

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