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Syrian girls play soccer among ghosts of Islamic State

Raqqa's first-ever girls' soccer team is blooming where Islamic State once terrorized the society.
Raqqa’s first ever girls’ soccer team poses outside a pitch funded by Norwegian donors, April 25, 2023.

RAQQA, Syria — In Raqqa, the erstwhile capital of the Islamic State (IS), a slim woman shrouded in black squints through the slits of her veil, dribbles a soccer ball then sends it into the net with a firm kick. Elsewhere across the sun-soaked pitch, young girls warm up, some covered and others not, whooping and joking as boys on an adjacent field look on. Aged between 10 and 14, they are members of Raqqa’s first-ever girls’ soccer team. Exuberance permeates the air.

The scene is nothing short of “revolutionary,” asserted Abdurrazaq Al Ahmed Slash, president of the city’s junior soccer league, smiling proudly as he gestured toward the girls. “We are changing the mentality here,” he told Al-Monitor. “It’s slow, but it’s happening.”

Less than six years ago, when IS still reigned over Raqqa, nobody dared to watch soccer let alone play it in the open. In Mosul, the caliphate’s other major outpost in neighboring Iraq, 13 teenage boys who defied the rule, watching an Asian Cup match between Jordan and Iraq, were rounded up and publicly executed by a firing squad. At Raqqa’s “black” soccer stadium, thus named because of its dark stone structure, public beheadings touted as family entertainment were the only “sports” on display. Beneath the stadium, in locker rooms converted into torture chambers, an untold number died.

Sewsan Hemadah, a 22 year old martial arts teacher, playing football in Raqqa on April 25, 2023. (Amberin Zaman/Al-Monitor)

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