Making Her Name in the West

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

A surprising summer TV ratings hit, in many countries, was the Women’s Football European Championship Tournament, just concluded this past Sunday and held at various stadiums in the Netherlands starting on 16 July.

As with all such tournaments, things only start to get really serious when it comes to the knock-out rounds, here the quarter-finals which were held on the weekend of 29-30 July. I tuned in then to the Germany-vs.-Denmark game, and was taken by surprise at the beginning when the stadium band played the Danish national anthem and – as is standard – the TV camera panned the line of starting Denmark players. One of them was definitely not like the others: not fair-skinned and blonde or standard brunette, but quite dark-skinned and dark-haired indeed. That was number 9, Nadia Nadim (also nothing near the typical Danish first or last name), who it turned out played as one of the forward strikers within Denmark’s 4-4-2 system.

Nadim actually scored, with a header, the goal that brought Denmark back to 1-1 against the Germans (cancelling out their goalkeeper’s terrible mistake that had allowed in a long-range strike for the Germans’ one goal), in a game the Danes would go on to win 2-1, a spectacular upset against the German women’s team that had won the last six such tournaments. She also scored Denmark’s first goal – an unstoppable penalty-kick – in the final against the Netherlands that the Danish team ultimately lost 2-4. And throughout the tournament (at least the games I watched) she was a dynamo of energy up there at the front of the Danish line.

But the equally interesting thing here is the back-story. Where is this lady from? This piece from The explains things well enough, in English: She was born in Herat, Afghanistan, to a father who was an officer in the Afghan Army and was executed by the Taliban in 2000, whereupon she fled with her mother and siblings to Europe, to Denmark. (I believe hearing during a game broadcast that the original plan was actually to carry on to go live in England.)

Now 29 years old, she is starting striker for the Denmark women’s national team, as well as for the Portland Thorns in the (American) National Women’s Soccer League. But that’s not all: she ultimately will become a doctor, as she is also studying in Denmark towards her medical degree. (For those not in the know, that requires abilities in math and science.) PLUS, as this piece from the website of a Danish sports TV channel puts it, she speaks seven languages (Danish, English, German, French, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi) and can be interviewed in at least the first three listed. (Nadia quote from that sports-site piece: “I’m quite bright. You would hardly believe it – surprise!”)

Inevitably, then, she embodies themes that go far beyond the mere persona of Nadia Nadim herself, in several directions. There is the elevation of international women’s football in the general public interest that this particular tournament has helped achieve, with the related and important aspect that now, for once, girls interested in playing football finally have heroes there performing on TV to which they can relate, of their same gender. Except that these particular feats, of course, were pretty much achieved collectively by all the women players participating in that Euros tournament.

For Nadim, in addition, there is the refugee aspect, the fact that she certainly does not “look” very Danish – and indeed only became a citizen when she was 12-13 years old. I daresay, however, that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone calling for her to be thrown out of the country, even among Denmark’s most rabid anti-foreigner rabble (all tattoos, piercings and Viking-horns). Denmark has certainly had a problem within the context of the Europe-wide refugee crisis that exploded in mid-2015, and it’s fair to say the country has mainly tried to keep its doors closed; it’s anti-foreigner party, the Danish People’s Party, has had strong influence on each government since the turn of the century. In Germany, similar anti-foreigner sentiment has to some degree been tamped down through nation-wide delight at the success of the men’s football team, which features stars of Turkish, Tunisian, Ghanaian lineage and the like. Might the same thing happen in Denmark via Nadia Nadim?

Yet I feel there is an even greater point to be made here, by looking back to where she originally came from. My thoughts were turned in this direction when I recently came across this piece from De Volkskrant:

“In some parts of Afghanistan women aren’t even referred to by name.” First paragraph of the article:

Women in Afghanistan are often indicated as “mother,” “daughter,” “wife” or “grandma.” In some parts of the land the name is not even denoted on birth-certificates, and on the marriage license only the name of the groom and the father of the bride are to be read. It even happens that the name of a woman who has died is not put on her gravestone, but she is rather referred to as “wife of.” Certainly within conservative circles, it is just not done to use a woman’s name within the family environment.

That is what Nadia Nadim escaped when she fled with her family. Does anyone think she would have played football (there is no Afghan national women’s football team), learned seven languages, become a doctor had she stayed in Afghanistan? We all know that the chances are overwhelming that she would have been kept illiterate and barefoot, restricted her whole life long to the usual roles of child-bearer and household servant. For we know that one of the things the Taliban are quite serious about is that girls are not to be educated – just ask Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala. (Admittedly, Malala herself is Pakistani, but the point still applies. By the way, that sort of outside-imposed upholding of women’s rights still does not justify the continued presence in that country of foreign military forces, nor the trillions of dollars or many thousands of lives – native and foreign – that have been wasted there since 2001.)

It was only by escaping to the West that Nadim could develop and display her quite impressive personal potential – and only in these comparatively rich (could one say: “comparatively civilized”?) countries where the society that took her in could also benefit from her many gifts. Why are these other countries so poor? Admittedly, it is a complicated question, which certainly involves somewhat of a history of colonial exploitation. But Nadia Nadim shows that an important reason they are still poor is their unwillingness to allow women to contribute to society in all the ways that they can; and this has to be specified as a very grave problem centered around a certain religion, namely Islam.

P.S.: For those interested in hearing her speak English, here is an interview she did in Oregon as a Portland Thorns player. (When I have time, I’ll see if I can embed that here in this post – thanks for making it so difficult, WordPress.)

Also: It seems she mostly tweets in English, for whatever reason. Sure, that reason may be “because that’s not really her account” (it’s not verified), but take a look, it has pictures you imagine only she and her team-mates had access to, and the like.

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