Despite difficulties related to social attitudes, the lack of training clubs for girls, and the blockade in Gaza, not only do Gazan girls practice various sports, but some of them become professionals.
“I fell and broke my hand when I was practicing roller skating for the first time in 2019 in the hall of my house,” said 22-year-old Marah Hassona, a Gazan roller skating trainer.
“I ran into a professional roller skater in a public park in Gaza. I asked him to teach me the basics and he agreed. My brother would come with me to help; if I fell or needed a push he was there to support me. “I love roller skating with every fiber in my body,” she told the Palestine Chronicle.
Marah Hassona, or Om Scooter, the mother of skating, as people call her, is widely known in Gaza because of the different photos of her on social media websites while practicing professional roller skating tricks at the beach and because she is the first female adult roller skater in Gaza.
“When I read negative comments on social media after the publication of many journalists’ and photographers’ photos and footage of me, I felt so depressed,” Hassona said. “Mum told me not to read the comments. She said, “You are pretty. You are good.’’
Step by step, Hassona learned the tricks by watching YouTube tutorials.
Roller skating in Gaza is a challenging sport for girls because there are no clubs or safe paths on the streets to practice. “I asked many NGO organizations and the ministry for youth and sports in Gaza to offer us at least a small, private place for practicing roller skating, but no one would help,” said Om Scooter. An Italian group from the Gaza Freestyle organization came to Gaza for cultural exchange and built two skateparks in 2019. Yet, not all the girls, and especially not the women, could play there freely, because of personal or family views about girls practicing sports in public areas, captain Marah explained.
Marah Hassona is a role model for many girls, not only in Gaza but also in other Arab countries, for her talent and support. “I created a channel on YouTube where I post roller skating tutorials because there are so few of them in Arabic. And not all learners understand English” said Hassona, smiling.
Om Scooter rents the Yarmouk Stadium of Gaza municipality for regular hours with Hamza Sulaiman, a Gazan roller skating trainer. “Many girls have contacted me and asked me to train them. I don’t want them to miss out on the opportunity of practicing this sport. So, I rent this place because it has a track for roller skating. I bought two roller skate shoes with my savings. I train the girls, and Hamza trains the boys.” “Winter has started. And it’s difficult to train the girls in this place because it’s outdoors, but there is no other place that would be suitable in Gaza,” she added, sadly.
Boxing is my passion
Ebtsam Naser, 28, Gazan boxer and boxing coach, “I trained with coach Osama until I became a professional boxer and was ready to train other girls, following Osama’s instructions,” This young female athlete told the PC, ” Boxing is my passion.”
Boxing is not yet a popular sport for girls in Gaza city. For one thing, there is a lack of support for sports in Gaza. Another is the fact that the blockade does not allow for participation in national or international competitions. Not only are outside permits denied, but permits are also denied to reach the West Bank. And, the perennial war prevents the availability of quality training facilities, which remain insufficient for the number of people in Gaza.
Osama Ayoub, 35, a Gazan boxing trainer who was living abroad, decided to return to Gaza five years ago and opened a window of hope for girls via sport. In a hall of Al Mashtal Club in the middle of Gaza, coach Ibtisam now trains her teams of more than 40 girls and young women aged between 12- and 24 years on boxing techniques. “In the beginning, Gazan adults’ main reactions to the idea of boxing for girls were surprised over this new sport in Gaza, fear of something new, and then the need for a club suitable for girls. But now there is increasing interest in boxing. Many people interact with me on social media when I publish videos and photos of the team.” Ibtisam said.
Ibtisam explained her passion, which is mixed with hope and love, for spreading sports as much as she can among girls in Gaza, because “It makes us stronger and heals our psychological wounds,” she said hopefully. Her dream is to represent Palestine in boxing at an international tournament. “Since the Israeli government routinely rejects travel permits for Gazans in need of medical treatment not available in Gaza, unless they are about to die, I would not be surprised that even if I ever get the chance to travel, it would be rejected by the Israeli authorities. But that will never stop me”
The only two boxing coaches in Gaza, Ibtisam, and Osama, together rented the room at the Al Mashtal club and transformed it, all on their own, to be suitable for training. It is the only place for boxing training in Gaza. This means that if a girl from Rafah wants to join the team, it will cost her 20 shekels, ($5.50) just for transportation, This is equivalent to Gazans’ daily average income. “Promising girls lose their chance because of the economic difficulties and because of the lack of interest in the sport in Gaza,” Osama explained, frustrated.
The sky is my limit
Mai El-Agha, 14, a basketball player, believes that girls in Gaza deserve to practice their sport just as boys do. She is happy that girls in Gaza have started to improve their talents in various sports.
After joining an academy of basketball for girls in Gaza, she saw that training makes her a better student, makes her fit in better with her peers, and keeps her active. “The Israeli occupation has meant that, as a Gazan, I do not have many rights, such as the right to communicate freely with the world. In sports, I have found a worldwide language that breaks down borders,” she says, “I feel like I’m flying when I’m playing basketball. Mai hopes to be not just a local but, also, an international player; as she says, “The sky is my limit.”
Passion, hope, love, strength, healing, freedom: Girls in Gaza deserve to practice sports without restrictions.
This story is co-published with Palestine Chronicle.