On a covered, concrete sports pitch in Bethlehem, 12 women are being put through their paces by the coach.  They run around the pitch several times, do their warm-up exercises and settle into some earnest tackling, dribbling and shooting practice.

It is a hard session; one of the first in a few months, but the girls are all grinning – clearly glad to be playing "the beautiful game".

This is one half of the Palestinian women’s football team, made up of players from local sides including Ram Allah, Gaza and Bethlehem, which has been playing in tournaments abroad.

Their strip is in the colours of the Palestinian flag, and the Muslim players wear long sleeves, trousers and headscarves.

Honey Thaljieh, 21, and the team captain, says: "It’s great to raise our flag in the Arab league tournaments."

In April, the team took part in a 10-day women’s football tournament in Alexandria, Egypt.

"It’s great to raise our flag in the Arab league tournaments"

Honey Thaljieh, team captain
In February, the team was in Abu Dhabi for the first Arab women’s football championship. Last September, the team played in Amman, Jordan, for the first West Asian women’s football championships.

Samar Araj Mousa, who manages the team and is the athletic director at Bethlehem University, says: "Always we lose, but sometimes we play as well as the other teams."

Lack of opportunities

Jackline Jazrawi, in the white
jersey, plays in Abu Dhabi
Mousa, who formed the team nearly three years ago, says that the players’ talent and energy is hampered by a lack of training opportunities.

"The West Asian championships were the first time we played on a proper pitch," she says.

The team practise on a concrete pitch in Bethlehem or on a gravel one in nearby Bait Sahur. The nearest grass pitch is three hours away in Jericho.

Some of the girls have knee and ankle injuries, the result of falling on to concrete rather than grass.

Moreover, says Jackline Jazrawi, 20, a team member, it is even harder in winter when it rains.

"This playing ground has a leaking roof, so we fall a lot from slipping in the puddles."

Israeli checkpoints

The national women’s team rarely get to train together because of the Israeli checkpoints.

"When we went to Egypt, we met half the team there," says Jazrawi. "We only practised together two or three times before we played in the tournament."

Honey Thaljieh, team captain,
in action in Abu Dhabi
Mousa also set up the Bethlehem side, but not without some raised eyebrows; there was a debate as to whether women should be playing, she says. But a survey of residents showed that 85% were in support.

"The ones who were not happy were mostly from the Islamic quarter," says Mousa.

"They said that football is a rough game for girls, or that the clothes are sexy, or that if women play it must be indoors and with a male coach."

But the women from Bethlehem University and schools in the area leapt at the chance.

Thaljieh, who graduated with a business administration degree this year, says: "It was my hobby when I was young and I played in the neighbourhood with my brothers.

"Whenever I saw a football, I was immediately drawn to it."

Football opens minds

The Bethlehem players, who range in age from 11 to 22, train twice a week with additional fitness sessions run by Mousa at the university.

"We have nowhere else to go and nowhere to put our energies," says Thaljieh. "In Bethlehem we are in a prison that is only open from above."

"We have nowhere else to go and nowhere to put our energies"

Honey Thaljieh

The city is surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, with the separation barrier running along its northern side.

The players also believe the game provides them with an opportunity to challenge traditional female roles.

Jazrawi, a biology student at Bethlehem University, says: "The Arab world is very strict compared with other cultures.

"We have to change it, and the change will start with the women. Through football we can make our minds more open, and our society too."

*this article was reprinted from aljazeera.net