KHARTOUM, SUDAN - Twenty-one-year-old Marilyn Zakarya is one of the players in the Sudanese women's football league that launched this week. Zakarya came from South Sudan to follow her dream in Khartoum. But she is worried whether Sudan's conservative society will accept women's football after years of restrictions.
Zakarya has been passionate about playing soccer since she was a child. She left her family in South Sudan to pursue the sport in Sudan, where a new women's league began play this week.
Zakarya says she was playing in Wau, Bahr Ghazal state, then came to Khartoum and joined Tahadi team with coach Sara Edward. Before the league started, she had some issues with school, so she stopped and then moved from Tahadi to Kornk team.
More obstacles to overcome
It took three decades of battling obstacles and objections to launch the women's league, which is sponsored by Sudan's Ministry of Youth and Sports.
It's still not easy for some of the women players. Zakarya says she hears insults whenever she wears her football uniform in public and gets comments about her short hair, too.
“One of the difficulties I always face is that I love to wear the football suit when I go for the training, people bully me by saying am I a boy or a girl, and why I look like this and why we look masculine,” she said. “They also say even men couldn't win cups, so we won't do anything."
Critics of the women's league are also active on social media. Politician Ehssan Fagiri thinks that is because the Islamist government of former president Omar al-Bashir restricted women's rights for so long.
When the former government came to power, Fagiri said, it targeted women with laws and local public orders to send them back to home.
“I don't think it's nonacceptance,” she says, “it’s more like an accumulated social culture for 30 years. We need to change it.”
Tight security not needed
Because of concerns the games would cause unrest, riot police have been on hand for the opening matches. However, national coach Alaa Mahmoud says the games have come off without any problems.
Mahmoud says he didn't expect that women and men would attend the matches, but it happened and everything is going well up to now. He hopes for the league to continue the same way it started and hopes to form a national team in order to represent Sudan worldwide.
Zakarya says her mother supported her dream and persuaded her father to embrace it too before she came to Khartoum.
She hopes that in the aftermath of Sudan's revolution, people will change their minds about what women should be allowed to do — and will cheer them as they play football.