In a Man’s World: Making space for women in the football fandom
Created by and for men, football has belatedly (and begrudgingly) opened its arms to welcome women supporters. Today, women occupy 37 per cent of the global football fanbase. The football fandom has traditionally been dominated by men, where attitudes towards women football fans have teetered from acceptance to blatant misogyny.
If you've been on any online platform, you've probably seen or experienced snide comments that question a woman's love for the sport or her favorite team. How many times have you come across variations of the "if a girl knows the offside rule, marry her" meme? Unwelcome physical attention at football matches, objectification of their bodies, and frequent interrogation of their football knowledge – female fans have truly endured it all.
Football fandom in Bangladesh, like elsewhere, is a man's domain and women are either embraced or treated like pariahs. To feel accepted and validated in the fandom, women supporters often accede to men's rules and norms, but still tolerate the sexism and misogyny. When I was young and naïve, relishing in my newfound fascination in football in fandom spaces comprised mostly of older men, I became an agent and a victim of discriminatory beliefs. I was an agent because, I was a perpetrator of the "I'm not like other girls" syndrome, parading myself for understanding the rules of the sport, yet a victim because many asked why I enjoyed a sport that was meant for men.
But not all female fans conform. Many resort to crafting their own spaces to escape the discrimination, such as joining women-only football groups or associations. The clouds of misogyny that hovered over me for so long only caught my attention as I grew older and discovered these exclusive groups for women.
Several of such groups have emerged in online spaces in Bangladesh where women can engage freely and indulge in their love for the sport without constant judgment. An example is Football Fan Girls of Bangladesh, a small Facebook group where I recently engaged with some of the members via a short survey to learn about their perspectives on the prevalence of misogyny in football fandom.
When asked about the kind of misogynistic or sexist remarks they encountered, one of the members said that they were told "you are a male using a female name and a fake ID" and "women can't understand or explain tactics". In response to why they joined a women-only football group, some members stated that they wanted to meet fellow female fans and have a safe environment for discussion.
As the football fandom continues to be rife with misogyny, groups exclusive to women can only do so much. Football teams have a growing obligation to show misogyny the red card in order to better accommodate female supporters.
While football teams and associations continue to pay lip service to gender equality, as visible in social media posts, more needs to be done to ensure that the fandom is a safer place for women fans in the long run. "Stringent laws", "proactive response from cybercrime authorities" and "greater support from male fans" were some of the solutions highlighted by the respondents in my survey.
Football's ability to serve as a catalyst for social transformation cannot be overstated. Rather than merely being a source of entertainment, the sport and its supporters need to harness its power towards gender equality and greater inclusivity. The beautiful game can only be beautiful if everyone, regardless of their differences, is accepted and allowed to cheer for their favorite teams and players in peace and safety.
Nielsen. 2022. Nielsen World Football Report 2022.
Raisha is currently a research intern at a local research institute.