Girls Got Game
Innovating Beyond Gender Restrictive Stereotypes in Sports
Stephanie Al Naber: The Jordanian Football Champ Breaking Stereotypes
“My male peers realized that I was very good and they always asked me to join them during the breaks. I was the only girl playing with 20 or 30 boys,”
AMMAN – When Jordanian football champ Stephanie Al Naber was nine, her father would ask her to sit next to him to watch football games along with her younger brother.
Little did Al Naber, 35, know that this childhood routine would lead her to become one of the most famous female football players in Jordan and internationally.
“My father was a huge football fan and TV channels at home were always on football,” Al Naber said.1
Al Naber’s father, Mazen, was keen on explaining the game to Stephanie and her younger sibling.
Football became Al Naber’s passion, and she took it to the streets kicking a ball with her brother Yousef, along with their friends and relatives.
Her love for the game grew while at school with Al Naber joining her male schoolmates during breaks while in 4th grade.
“My male peers realized that I was very good and they always asked me to join them during the breaks. I was the only girl playing with 20 or 30 boys,” she recalled.
The girls at her school, however, would criticize her because “it was a boys’ game”.
“I did not care. All I wanted was to play football,” she added.
Her talents did not go unnoticed by school coaches, and she was selected to play with 11th and 12th grade female players when she was only in 4th grade.
The footballer played for Orthodox Club at the age of 17 and then moved to Shabab Al Urdon. She was later chosen to represent the newly-established Jordanian National Football team in 2005.
Al Naber participated in 128 international games, dozens of qualifying championships and scored 79 goals.
“It was always my dream and passion to wear the national team’s jersey and hear our national anthem play in the background before a game,” said Al Naber, who was captain of the Jordan national team until her retirement in March 2020.
She was also the first Jordanian woman to play football in leagues in Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon.
But the road to championships was not an easy ride for the midfielder and her teammates.
“We were often faced with sarcasm and stereotyping comments, but we would always laugh about it and put it behind our backs the minute we enter the field for a game or practice,”
In 2005, the Jordan Football Association (JFA), headed by HRH Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, established the first women’s national football team.
The team excelled during their first international appearance by clinching the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championship in 2005.2
Al Naber scored the winning goal against Iran in the final game.
“This win was a milestone for our national team because it placed Jordan on the women’s football world map,”
Al Naber said
Al Naber gave credit to Prince Ali for “his own passion and commitment towards the Jordanian women’s football program”.
“Prince Ali always had a positive approach by following up on our needs and showing up at practices to boost our morals,” Al Naber recalled.
When the team faced some backlash from some observers, “Prince Ali would be the first to respond to negative or stereotypical comments about women’s football,” she added.
The football star said the JFA and players made good use of social media to reach out to fans, the younger generation and to alter the stereotypical image of women footballers.
“When we first started playing, the audience would be our families and friends. But with the smart use of social media, stadiums were packed with fans from various backgrounds who were there to support us,” Al Naber explained.
In addition, the JFA designated a webpage specifically for women’s football on various social media outlets.
“Most of the games are aired via social media pages to reach as many people as possible,” according to Al Naber.
The players also use social media to promote the game and to reflect on their daily lives, eating habits and what football has done to empower and change their lives, she added.
Al Naber is currently a board member and head of the Women’s Football Committee at the JFA.
“Since I became a JFA board member, I used my knowledge and experience to address the gaps, including increasing the number of players and games played by clubs and our national teams,” she said.
At the same time, the JFA is also focusing on increasing the number of female coaches, referees, and administrators.
“Today we have more than 1,000 female players, 16 registered clubs, 95 female certified coaches and 37 female referees,” according to Al Naber.
A Message to Future Players
Addressing the younger generation, Al Naber said “If you have a dream and are passionate about women’s football do not let anything stop you or put you down. Aim high and aim to be part of the national team and to play as a professional player on an international level”.
“Focus on your goals and achieving your dreams because there is a future for women’s football in Jordan and the world”.
Zeina Zanoun finds empowerment in wheelchair basketball
"I want to encourage people who are in my situation to know that nothing is hard or impossible in this life,”
Basketball on a Wheelchair
On the other side of the Jordanian border, Zeina Zanoun, a young Palestinian girl with a disability, rolls her wheelchair to a basketball field near her home to play with her peers.3
Zanoun, who benefited from UNICEF support through a program in East Jerusalem on safeguarding children’s rights,4 began her venture with the game at the age of 12.
“At the beginning, the idea was strange to me because I never thought that someone who is in a wheelchair can play any kind of sports,” said Zanoun, who was born with a spina bifida that caused her permanent disabilities.
But once she started practicing and playing the game, the 14-year-old never looked back.
“I said to myself let me join and see if I can do it. I discovered that it was empowering and different so I decided to continue playing as long as I can,”
added Zanoun, the youngest of eight female siblings.
Her family was skeptical at the beginning of Zanoun’s sports activities, “but when they saw the positive impact on my life, they encouraged me to keep going”.
Bashaer, Zeina’ sister, 23, who studied journalism, said the family backed “Zeina’s dreams of playing basketball and told her nothing is impossible”.5
“Whenever there is a practice or a game, our house becomes like a beehive. We are all there to support and help her get ready,” added Bashaer.
But Zanoun’s journey was a bit bumpy.
“My neighbors were surprised to see me play basketball on a wheelchair, while others would look at me in a weird way when I played,” she said.
But Zanoun added that she got accustomed to her situation.
“It is not something that is bothering or depressing me at all because I love the game and it is what keeps me going and enjoying life,” Zanoun said.
The best moment for her is when she scored points during a local competition in Jerusalem in 2022.
“It is a really fun atmosphere and my best moment in the games was when I scored a basket and we ended up in third place,” she said.
Zanoun said she aspires to use social media to promote the game and become a famous international player and tour the world so that “I can convey our messages to the world”.
“I want to encourage people who are in my situation to know that nothing is hard or impossible in this life,” said Zanoun, who also aims to become a pediatrician once she graduates from high school.
The world needs to know that they are not alone. There are other people who have special needs or use wheelchairs” Zanoun concluded.
Project Coordinator at Burj Al-luqluq Social Center Society Alaa Ghrab said UNICEF supported the “Play and Learn” program, reaching more than 3,000 children with structured recreational, educational, life skills and resilience building services, since 2018. The basketball wheelchair team for children with disabilities is the first and only supported sports activity available in East Jerusalem, benefitting 11 children, including three girls.6
“We adopt a long-term program to benefit people with disabilities and to empower them physically and mentally. We decided on the game of basketball wheelchair,” Ghrab said.
Wheelchair basketball added positive aspects to the players’ lives, according to Ghrab, since the game allows them to move all their body parts while developing other skills such as better communication and building up their self-confidence.
Ghrab added that they chose a dozen players who practice twice a week on a regular basis and provided them with the needed transportation to get to and from practice.
“The idea is to empower people with disabilities so that they become professional players and, eventually, become the future generations’ trainers and good role models,” Ghrab added.
1 Interview with Stephanie Al Naber, 18 January 2023, Amman, Jordan
2 Khashman, Balqis, Women’s Football … An Achievement Story that Began at the University of Jordan, Al Rai Newspaper, 13 May 2016. Read the article here.
3 Interview with Zeina Zanoun (via Zoom), 24 December 2022, Amman, Jordan
5 Interview with Basher Zanoun (via Zoom), 24 December 2022, Amman, Jordan
6 Interview with Alaa Ghrab (via Zoom), 24 December 2022, Amman, Jordan