Featured image: The starting XI of Iceland’s women’s team prior to kickoff of a match against Ukraine. Photo: Helgi Halldórsson; Reykjavik, 25 October 2012. (This image is now in public domain)
Gender constructs and subsequent discrimination on the basis of assigned roles are widespread in all aspects of arts and culture — filmmaking, music, and sports to name a few. This makes opening up a discourse about it an increasingly pertinent approach at discovering the systematic functionality of patriarchy latent in the fabric of society. It is therefore not a dramatic discovery when I learnt for the first time that Iceland has a more experienced (in terms of participation in major international tournaments) and extremely accomplished women’s football team, fondly nicknamed Stelpurnar okkar (or, “our girls”).
At the risk of oversimplifying it, the shroud of obscurity around such successful professional women who go unnoticed is largely due to misconceptions apropos of their ability or skill which is through some divine oracle, preconceived as inferior to that of their male counterparts. Those who follow women’s football to even a rudimentary extent can and will verify the falsity of such a preposterous notion.
The history of women’s football is remarkably colorful, and while England, Norway, Germany, Sweden and USA have more or less dominated the world rankings, Iceland has made its way up with consistent improvement, recently having been ranked 16 (15 in 2011). Since 1991, when Iceland formed its first women’s team, these footballers have slowly built themselves up as a force to be reckoned with in global circle. But the lack of relevant material online and off, celebrating these exemplary sportswomen, or at least initiating a critical discussion about their skill and strategies, is disconcerting and unnerving to say the least.
In her seminal work Women’s Football in the UK, sports and gender theorist Jayne Caudwell states:
“Existing work on gender and football has rightly celebrated women’s successes, and documented these occasions alongside the many struggles they have endured. In this work, gender is commonly regarded from a liberal perspective as a social relation to power. Within this relational dynamic, it is men and boys who dominate privileged positions in the game and entitlement to these opportunities. This dominance […] is taken as a ‘naturally’ occurring phenomenon.”
That woman is construed as the “other” is neither a construct exclusive of sports nor specific to football. Women footballers are relegated to a position of secondary importance not only by national sports committees, federations and sponsors but also by journalists and football fans who continue to treat it primarily as a man’s game. Opportunities and platforms for women lack financial backing and positive socio-cultural support even today, as is evident in Iceland where the entire country is reveling in what is predominantly another story of masculine success.
On the other hand, here are the fixtures and records of the women’s team for statistical reference. A quick perusal of these will show you they not only qualified each time for the European championships since 2009 (even going on to reach the quarter-finals in 2013), the women’s team also emerged as the runner up in 2011’s Algarve Cup.
Sigridur Jonsdottir wrote in an article published in When Saturday Comes (and later in the Guardian):
“When the men’s side qualified for Euro 2016 many celebrated like it was the first time an Icelandic team had gone so far in an international competition. Plans were made for a massive screen to be erected in downtown Reykjavik to show Iceland’s matches. The women’s team were [sic] not given screen in 2009 or 2013, but hopefully that will be rectified if they travel to the Netherlands in July 2017.”
Asma Barlas in her essays on gender roles and feminism clearly states:
“[…] by patriarchy we mean father-rule and/or a politics of male privilege based in theories of sexual differentiation. Both forms of patriarchy associate the male/masculine with the Self, knowledge, truth, and sovereignty, while representing the woman as different, unequal, or the ‘Other’.”
This sacrosanct Other-ness of women (quite evident from the lack of awareness regarding achievements of women in sports) is rather solipsistic, no longer practical or even fair.
The right question at this juncture perhaps is, shouldn’t qualities that constitute the “Other” be interchangeable, irrespective of genders? If we are to take the Icelandic Women’s Football team as our case study, the women’s team has been qualifying for Euro finals since 2009, as compared to UEFA Euro 2016 being the first ever tournament for their male counterparts. It is therefore perhaps time to revise, rename, and refer to the men’s team as “other”.
While methodically researching for this article, there were a few things that caught my eye that are symptomatic of the aforementioned Other-ness.
First, given the recent popularity and success of the Icelandic male football team, all Google searches relating to their equally extraordinary women’s football team have precipitated into a bottomless pit. The first that had any mention of the women’s team was a New York Times article where one sentence happens to be:
“While Iceland’s women’s team qualified for the last two Euros, the men’s team has been on a slower build.”
The next one, a very sketchy piece titled “Women’s Icelandic Football Team Jerseys Cost Twice As Much As Men’s”, read like a very familiar nightmare and thus felt oddly comforting. In what seemed like a half-hearted effort to state a fact, not protest for change, the article simply brushed over the issue of pink tax. This was soon followed by a stream of gender neutral articles which celebrated and discussed in detail the several achievements of the men’s team with sparse mentions of the women’s as an afterthought.
The women’s team has been qualifying for the final stages of the Euros for the past two tournaments and is likely to qualify for the upcoming chapter in 2017 as well. That itself is deserving of an entire autonomous article and the attention of any sports journalist worth their dime. An equation of their achievements is therefore not fair.
Reykjavik may have been the cynosure of soccer spotlight after Iceland’s tumultuous journey in UEFA Euro 2016 but the country, as it turns out, has not been completely fair to all its football champions. While the media response over the men’s team has been nothing short of ecstatic, a lack of “hype” over the women’s team once again reinforces the idea and existence of misogyny in sports, disproving the myth of an Icelandic football utopia.