For Somali women, playing basketball is a matter of life and death

Is women’s basketball important? In the U.S., we take it for granted. But consider this: In Somalia, players on the national women’s basketball team risk their lives every time they show up to play.

Two weeks ago, al-Shabaab militants contacted Suweys Ali Jama, the team captain. They gave her two options: be killed or stop playing basketball. Seems like an easy choice, doesn’t it? It was — but her decision was not the obvious one.

“I will only die when my life runs out — no one can kill me but Allah. I will never stop my profession while I am still alive. Now, I am a player, but even if I retire, I hope to be a coach. I will stop basketball only when I perish,” Jama told an IPS reporter.

Al-Shabaab is a military group linked to Al-Qaeda that controls large areas of Somalia. In early October, the group claimed responsibility for an attack in Mogadishu that killed 70+ people. The group considers women’s sports “un-Islamic.” Apparently, however, they believe that Allah is OK with killing women who play.

Somali women were banned from sports when the Islamic Courts Union controlled the country, calling women’s sports a “heritage of Old Christian cultures.” The ICU lost power in December 2006, but its armed wing al-Shabaab still adheres to the edict.

Another team member who received a death threat, Aisha Mohamed, quoted her callers: “You are twice guilty. First, you are a woman and you are playing sports, which the Islamic rule has banned. Second, you are representing the military club who are puppets for the infidels. So we are targeting you wherever you are.”

The team is training for the Arab Games in Qatar at the Somali police academy’s basketball court, which offers a degree of safety. When practice ends, players change from their tracksuits, t-shirts and headscarves to the traditional dress and veil, as well as a Yashmak to cover their faces, allowing them to travel home in anonymity.

Somalia’s first women’s national team debuted in 1970 and has never won a tournament, despite the obvious dedication of its players. Mohamed’s mother played for the national team and Aisha has been playing all her life. The women are paid a pittance as pro basketball players, despite the popularity of the sport in Somalia. Of course, that popularity is why al-Shabaab has been threatening players.

Somalia is in the midst of a horrible famine that already has killed thousands of people. To supporters of the basketball team, participation tells the world that the country has the will to survive, despite hardships. To the team, continuing to play the sport is a refusal to let militant extremists control their lives.

As much as I love basketball, I would give it up in an instant if my life were at stake. But the power of determination in countries that face death at every turn breeds the kind of passion for life that free people can never understand. Join me in wishing these women well as they honor the power of the human spirit.

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