Offside in football is an illegal manoeuvre, which occurs when a player’s body is closer to the opposing side’s goal line than the ball and the last defending opponent — not counting the goalie. It is an appropriate title for a film about Sudanese women’s bodies — and minds — and their attempt to enter professional soccer, an institution conventionally protected as much as possible, in many countries, from women.
Oufsaiyed Elkhortoum (Khartoum Offside) is a welcome addition to the recent news coverage of Sudan. As the April overthrow of the Omar al-Bashir regime was the culmination of months of grassroots protests, in which women played a dynamic role, so this film offers a grassroots perspective of the neighbourhoods and football pitches of Sudan’s capital city.
Oufsaiyed Elkhortoum is a graceful film depicting a group of women’s love for and dedication to their sport, in the larger context of Sudanese people pursuing other work and leisure with similar love and dedication. Khartoum is a city of some five million people, and Sudanese-Egyptian filmmaker Marwa Zein’s camera covers it, from the confluence of the Blue and White Niles to the dusty quarters where these women make their lives and try to perfect their football skills.
The footballers are a mixed group of Sudanese and South Sudanese women who are building maintenance workers, high school students, shopkeepers and the like. Some are from the Nuba Mountains, a particularly oppressed region near the northern side of the border. Their struggles include the South Sudanese team members’ efforts to stay in Sudan, where they now require a residency permit after the breakup of the two Sudans in 2011. Thousands of people who must now obtain permits, have never lived in South Sudan.
The inner-city football pitches the team uses to practice are a common sight across urban Sudan. Until recently, Khartoum and Omdurman had vast, open spaces near residential areas, where men of all ages could bring their teams and spend the day enjoying the beautiful game. Women were largely relegated to selling snacks or to cheering on their brothers or cousins.
Today, with the rising cost of urban lots caused by the demand for housing — read blocks of flats — and commercial spaces, football pitches are reduced to wire cages carpeted with green artificial turf, which are rented by the hour. These cages are called khomsiat (fives) in reference to the number of players in a team in this confined space. They have become a ubiquitous sight, particularly along the main thoroughfares in Omdurman and Khartoum.
In the film, we see team members passing around the hat to collect the sum needed to continue their practice session, with some arguing about whether teammates who had to leave early were also responsible for the extra cost of the cage. Although these spaces may be rented to whomever has the cash, it is not the same ease with which one gains entry into the world of professional football in Sudan. The guardians of those gates, and apparently of women’s femininity and virtue, are Sudan’s religious authorities.
Zein began making the film four years ago before the 2019 uprising and the overthrow of the 30-year dictatorship of Al-Bashir. But the film neatly reflects the contemporary theme of women’s strength in the face of direct opposition. After the revolution, the Salafist right remains determined to prevent women’s participation in politics and sport. An imam named Yousef Abdelhay is leading the charge. He invested the wealth he made, a result of a close relationship with al-Bashir, into television stations and support for terror organisations, declaring himself Islamic State’s “man in Sudan”.
The new government named Wala’a al-Boushi the first woman minister of youth and sport in Sudan, and she immediately provided a grant to establish a women’s soccer federation in Sudan. This decision has been denounced by Abdelhay from the pulpits of the nation’s mosques for several weeks now. He attempts to rally the nation behind him by declaring that “sport will erase the differences between men and women” and that “women will deviate from their feminine nature” on the football pitch.
The women in Oufsaiyed Elkhortoum wear track pants and head scarves on the field and won’t be mistaken for men.
With its setting of football as the site of a national struggle, the film is reminiscent of Men in the Arena, the 2016 film about the launching of a Somali national football team. Oufsaiyed Elkhortoum hasan ethnographic quality, with the entire soundtrack captured in the voices of the players, their friends, families, and coaches, which invites us to witness another field of women’s struggle in a Muslim society. Women’s joy, on and off the pitch, punctuates the film as it joins the growing genre of African football cinema.
This article was first published on Africa is a Country