The team trains in private fields, farms and even the back garden of a senior princess 

                  (In)active lifestyles

Through passion and hand work, Adwa has

managed to excel in her chosen sport, and to open

the field to many others. Unfortunately however, most

Saudi girls are still unable to make the first step.

 

Girls' state schools have no changing rooms, no sports kits. 

P.E classes have been purposely omitted from the syllabi. 

Public women's gyms were outlawed until just last year. Most competitive sports remain off-limits.

There is no religious dictum that forbids girls from playing netball, 

or starting a football team. The lack of women's sporting activity

stems more from a cultural understanding of vigorous physical

activity belong to the masculine realm.

Saudi codes of conservatism and modesty also proscribe activities that may involve listening to pop music or wearing tight or revealing clothing, or as one teacher put it "garments that part the thighs". 

Some women have found ways around the restrictions.

Princess Reema notoriously opened a ladies gym in Riyadh

under a dressmakers license. She still keeps a

sewing machine in a front room to placate

inspectors. 

What is the most rebellious thing you have ever done?

Just playing football! And well, probably travelling with the team. Whenever we travel for a match we are very careful to move in small groups and not to carry anything that would identify us as a team, to avoid being harassed by religious men at the airport. Our kit is all hidden under our abayas! 

The Footballer

Mashael, 29, Jeddah

Mashael leads a football club in the Western Province

On the role of women

Nowadays, honestly I think women are more privileged than men. A lot of doors have opened to women, we're in business, we're in government. But men are still expected to provide, they still face certain restrictions; you know they don't let single men in the mall.

I also find that women are more competent. A man can reach his goals pretty easily, but a woman isn't going to get there without a fight. So women are more dedicated, more determined professionally. Even at school, I've found girls to be harder workers. But then, isn't that true of women all over the world, really?

On football

I struggled since I was a kid, because I was always active, always into everything, but being a girl, finding anywhere to practice any kind of sport was really difficult. 

At university, a group of us started playing football on our break, just for fun. A lot of girls play you know, with cousins, on the family farm at the weekend, or just against a wall at home when their parents decide they're too old to play with the boys.

 

But a group of us got really passionate, we started training every day. We had no coach, no one to show us how to play or how to train. This was back in 2009, we didn't have Youtube or Amazon, so whenever we travelled we would to try to find DVDs with training sessions and coaching tips to take back with us; we figured it out for ourselves. 

As word got out about us, more and more girls wanted to join. So we spread the word that we were going to have a league; eight teams sprang up in the city within the month. 

We've always worked like that, through word of mouth. The one time we went public, the paper wrote an article about us, and it was a disaster. 90% of the feedback was negative, we got a lot of hateful comments.

So we've played in secret for ten years. We've finally launched a website this year, things are starting to change. But to us, the publicity doesn't matter. Our main mission is to create a healthy environment where women and girls can play football, and enjoy all the benefits of the sport.

 

And we have that, we have hundreds of women involved, from age five to forty, and a whole community has grown up around us. We're enjoying ourselves, we're playing, we have a league. What more do we want, right? 

On the veil

I don't wear niqab. In Islam there's nothing that says you should cover your face. In fact you shouldn't cover your face to pray; in Mecca, the holiest place you could ever be, your pilgrimage isn't accepted if you cover your face. 

But I do cover my hair, and if we ever had an official national women's team, I would play in hijab, of course. If I'm representing my country, I want to do so in the best way possible. 

 

People think we are oppressed because we cover our hair, because we wear the abaya, but I love it! I don't need to wake up an hour before work to get dressed and fix my hair, I don't have to change between events. I wake up twenty minutes before I leave for work, and  just go!

On perceptions

Outside, they see me as oppressed. They see me as ignorant. When I travel people ask me the stupidest questions.

But if you ask me where do I want to live, I don't want to live anywhere else but Riyadh. I've had opportunities to study abroad, to work abroad, I turned them down. We're not oppressed, we have everything, we just happen to be wearing abayas, and I like it!

When I travel to other countries, I find they're not really family oriented; a girl reaches 18 and then she moves out, she goes to another city. I'm almost thirty and I have dinner with my family - with my parents, aunties, grandparents, every single night. I love the family atmosphere.  

And I have strong faith in the new generation. I think we're going to make great changes, and show the world that we're educated, we're capable. I'm just waiting for the day we get to prove ourselves on the pitch!

This interview is an extract from the book Queens of the Kingdom, Simon & Schuster (2019)