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Gaza's female softball players in league of their own

Baseball and softball fever is sweeping Gaza, where women and girls are learning to swing.

GAZA CITY— Nada Arini, born and raised at the Jabalia Refugee Camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, learned the rules of baseball and softball from the internet. When she joined the first women’s team in the Gaza Strip three years ago, she used whatever gloves she could find and her bat was locally carved, modeled on ones she saw online.

Arini started playing softball after her father died, a few months before she joined the Amwaj Association for Development. It took her six months of training to master her swing. 

“My mother and uncle supported me, helping me challenge society's resistance to women playing this game,” Arini told Al-Monitor. "I searched on YouTube for information and rules to develop my skills. I applied what I learned on the field as much as I could."

Softball — often called women’s baseball — first came to the Gaza Strip in late 2016 thanks to former soccer coach Mahmoud Tafesh. Tafesh, who learned the sport in Cairo, rented a space to start training boys and girls who wanted to try it.

In January 2017, he got approval from the Ministry of Youth and Sports to establish a Palestinian Baseball and Softball Federation and he began recruiting players. Girls, to his surprise, proved to be more eager than boys. So he started with a team of a half-dozen girls, three short of a traditional nine-player team. Little of the equipment met even loose standards — the players used tennis balls and ordinary gloves but dutifully placed baseball caps over their headscarves.

The version they played, with pitches lobbed underhand, is closer to softball. This variant of baseball was first introduced as an indoor version of the sport but has since developed as an outdoor game that is played by mostly women and children.

Arini was among the first players to join the team. Since then, she has trained extensively in playing and coaching softball as well as other field sports, including how to referee for tennis, all sponsored by Al-Nasr Club. She is now the captain of Al-Nasr amateur softball team, which participates in tournaments among the five governorates in the Gaza Strip. Her team won first place in the 2019 Women’s Softball Cup, beating another Gaza team, Khadamat al-Shatee Club.

Arini was recognized as Best Team Leader in a survey of federation members conducted by the Baseball and Softball Committee of the Palestinian Racket Games Federation in December. The same survey chose Mariam Siam as Best Assistant Referee. Enaam Abu Qainass, a player from Arini’s team, won Best Softball Player.

One of the few female referees in Gaza, Siam, 23, graduated from the University College of Applied Sciences in 2018 with a degree in physical education. She worked as the main referee for the first time for the 2019 Women’s Softball Cup, in which Al-Nasr Club beat Khadamat Rafah SC 18-8. Siam also leads the Khadamat al-Shatee Club, a national softball team of 12 girls over 16. 

Though there are now a total of 40 female softball players in Gaza, Siam said it has not been easy participating in sports as a woman in the Gaza Strip. “There are very few halls or sports fields that accept women,” she said. "I moved between three fields that allowed women to play — Helal Gaza fieldSaad Sayel Sports Hall and Champions Club field."

Money was another problem. She tried hard but failed to gather the funds to travel to international games in Tunisia in 2017 and France in 2018. Even if she had managed to find the money, she thinks that bureaucratic red tape and limitations on travel might have stopped her from going abroad.

Qainass, 34, trains in several sports. “Before I joined the softball team, I would run for miles as part of cross-country training," she said. "I also joined the Palestinian scouts and camped out in the open with the First Gaza Scouts.”

Despite their short history, softball and baseball are no longer a novelty for Gazans. The Palestinian Racket Games Federation organizes around 30 baseball tournaments in various categories for men and women, experienced players and rookies. 

“There is a good turnout of women in softball,” said Alaa al-Amour, the 25-year-old coach of the Khadamat al-Shatee team. She told Al-Monitor that the players' families are getting used to the idea. “Despite the social rejection of women’s presence in sports, my family, which is athletic, encouraged me to continue teaching football to girls at Al-Mashtal Club. Then I began coaching softball on July 21, 2018. Sports is my passion.”

All the players are hoping for the formation of a Palestinian league that can participate in international championships and send players, coaches and referees abroad. But first, they all say, they would like their own grass field.