CAIRO — Soccer fans in Egypt were surprised when they watched Egypt's Second Division game between Haras El Hodoud and Beni Ebeid on April 19: The two assistant referees were women.
Mona Atallah has been in the headlines since last month, as she is the first female assistant referee in a men's soccer game in Egypt. On April 23, Eurosport Arabia published an article with the headline, “Mona Atallah: The first woman assistant referee in a men's match.”
The second assistant referee, who is assigned to one of the two touchlines, in the April game between Haras El Hodoun and Beni Ebeid was Poussi Said.
Atallah and Said aren't the first female soccer referees in Egypt. In 2015, Sarah Samir officiated games for children and youth. Atallah, however, is the first female referee in Egypt's Second Division.
Nasser Abbas, a commentator of Egyptian and African soccer games, told Al-Monitor, “The performance of Atallah and Said during the [April 19] game honors women’s role in soccer. We hope there will be more female referees in the Egyptian Premier League. We consider their participation in the Second Division an important first step that will lead to women officiating Premier League games.”
He said, “Female referees officiate games in several European Premier Leagues and also in some Arab countries such as Morocco. In Egypt we have international female referees such as Sarah Samir, who have only officiated youth games that the public is not interested in. The promotion of Atallah and Said to the Second Division is remarkable because they stood out in their performance.”
Both Atallah and Said have a reputation for being firm and fair, and the April 19 game did not witness any unjust decisions from the touchlines.
Atallah, who started refereeing at the age of 14, has officiated several international women's games. She told Al-Monitor that the April 19 game had been the first time she officiated as an assistant referee in Egypt's Second Division, noting that the game went smoothly despite the tense atmosphere. It was, after all, the game that would decide which of the two teams would qualify for the Premier League.
She added, “The difference between the Egyptian leagues and international games is that many foreign teams — such as those in Europe — accept women refereeing men’s soccer games because of the social and cultural diversity in those countries, unlike in Egypt.”
Atallah said that the best way to face society’s unacceptance of female soccer referees is by confronting the public and proving that women have the ability to be referees in men’s soccer games. "Women are no less competent than men in refereeing soccer games," she noted.
The emergence of female referees is not the only indicator of Egyptian women’s interest in soccer. Social media activist Azza Jalal announced the establishment of the first women’s association of supporters in an April 8 interview with Laha magazine, calling it “Egypt speaks soccer,” to encourage women to cheer for different Egyptian teams and for the Egyptian national soccer team in the stadiums.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Jalal said that the main mission of the association right now is to try to organize with travel and tourism agencies discounted trips for women to attend the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia as supporters for the national team.
The Egyptian soccer team qualified for the first time in 28 years for the 2018 World Cup, which inspired Jalal to establish the supporters association.
Asked why Egyptian women’s interest in refereeing and supporting soccer games is increasing, Fathi Sanad, a sports critic for Akhbar El Yom and Ryada 24, told Al-Monitor, “Women’s interest in soccer emerged with Egypt’s qualification for the World Cup.”
He said that Egypt’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup has increased the interest in soccer for many Egyptians, especially since the country did not take part in seven World Cup tournaments in the last 28 years. He added, “Women are an integral part of society, and the renewed public interest in soccer is also bound to hook them.”
Suraya Abdel Jawad, a sociology instructor at Menoufia University, told Al-Monitor that it wasn’t only Egypt’s qualification for the World Cup that triggered women’s interest in soccer, but the growing role of women in society in general. She said that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s declaration of 2017 as "the Year of Women" and the subsequent success by women in obtaining positions in politics and civil service have boosted women’s confidence in their ability to take on jobs in fields that have been dominated by men in the past.
Abbas said, “Women’s participation in the soccer scene will not have a direct positive impact on Egypt’s performance in the World Cup or on the development of men’s soccer. But it will push women to participate in sports in general and to win sports tournaments, mainly in women’s soccer and squash where they are currently excelling.”
Jawad said that women as soccer referees and fans will be instrumental in breaking men’s monopoly of the sport, for both amateurs and professionals.
Head of the Egyptian Feminist Union Hoda Badran praised women entering the world of men’s soccer as supporters and referees. She told Al-Monitor, “The presence of Egyptian female supporters in the stadiums during the World Cup will send out a message to the world that the situation of Egyptian women has improved and that they are empowered in [a wide range of] activities from sports to careers. This is especially true when coupled with women officiating soccer games."
She also lauded Atallah and Said’s courage as well as the Egyptian Football Association’s encouragement for women to officiate games in Egypt's Second Division. She hopes this step would pave the way in women’s refereeing of the Premier League ultimately.