Yesterday, flying between Casablanca and Tunis, I found myself sitting amidst the Tunisian women’s national rugby team. (Who knew Tunisia has a women’s rugby team? To my surprise, apparently Morocco and Egypt also have women’s teams.) The Tunisian women competed over the weekend in Rabat to successfully qualify for the 2013 Rugby World Cup in Moscow. One young player told me that it was her goal to compete in the World Cup in 2013 and go on to represent Tunisia at the 2016 Olympics – the first time rugby will be played at the games since 1924 and the first time ever for women’s rugby.
Inspired by the women’s enthusiasm, and the huge silver trophy they lugged with them on the plane, I did a little digging and discovered that the Tunisian women’s team is actually pretty good for its neighborhood, going undefeated in 2011. They were also the African Cup champions in 2011, and the only team from Africa to compete at the Hong Kong seven’s tournament in March 2012. (Seven’s is one of two widely played variations of rugby.) Admittedly, the Tunisians lost in Hong Kong against the much more experienced European and Asian sides, but facing stiffer competition is an important step forward.
The women players explained to me that while they receive some funding from the Tunisian Rugby Union (which itself is partially funded by the Ministry of Sport), the players have to pick up a lot of their costs personally. This is not unusual in international women’s rugby. Only the women’s team from the Netherlands is fully funded; the Nigerian women’s team, for example, could not afford the travel to Rabat to compete in the World Cup qualifying matches. The United States this year plans to support eight women rugby players for the first time.
I asked the women players whether Tunisians approved of them playing rugby. (Four of them, by the way, wear the headscarf and long sleeves and tights under their uniforms while the other eight players compete in shorts and short-sleeved jerseys.) One player said that the public really doesn’t know about the team, but given their success, I think their days of flying under the radar will soon come to an end. Indeed, a television crew was waiting at the airport to interview them (you can watch profiles of the women’s team in Arabic and French also.)
Some of the players conceded that many Tunisians would likely disapprove of women playing rugby, but they noted that all of their families are proud and supportive. However, they should probably brace themselves for some harshness. Remember this past summer when Habiba Ghribi became the first Tunisian woman to win a medal at the Olympics, but then came under criticism because her track suit was too revealing. Ghribi rose above the storm and gracefully dedicated her medal to her “family, the free Tunisia, the Arab world, and all Arab and Tunisian Women.”
The fact is that women’s rights and role in society remain contested issues in Tunisia. Just this morning, demonstrators clogged the streets of downtown Tunis to protest the case of a woman who was allegedly raped by the Tunisian police but is now being brought to court on charges of “indecency.” Over the summer, women’s groups became angered by reports that the government was trying to insert language in the new constitution referring to women as complementary to men. Under pressure from civil society, the National Constituent Assembly now seems to have backed away from that. In very tangible ways, women’s sports touch on all the core issues of freedom, tolerance, and rights that Tunisia is grappling with at this stage of its transition. I hope the Tunisian women’s rugby team will succeed in inspiring their countrymen both on and off the pitch.