Some Iraqi Women Play A Secret Game

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During the height of the violence in Anbar province in 2006, a group of women began gathering in secret to practice their passion: handball. They played in abandoned schools despite threats from strictly religious Sunni insurgents. They still play in decrepit buildings with antiquated equipment, but now they're aiming for a championship in a national tournament.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Iraq can be a sports-crazed country. When the national soccer team wins a game, people take to the streets of Baghdad and fire their guns into the air to celebrate. Back in the 1980s, Iraq was considered a sports powerhouse, but wars and sanctions ended that. Now a few people want to return Iraq to its place in the sports world, including some unlikely athletes from an unlikely place.

NPR's J.J. Sutherland reports from Baghdad.

J.J. SUTHERLAND: The cavernous arena has seen better days. Yellow and green paint has faded on the dirty concrete walls.

Mr. MUSTAFA NAJIM ABDULLAH(ph) (Coach): (Foreign language spoken)

SUTHERLAND: Coach Mustafa Najim Abdullah is working with 15 young women on the court. Some of their male relatives are watching carefully from the sidelines. They're playing handball. Just a few have their heads covered as they run and jump and throw. Some of them are wearing jerseys, others don't have them.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this team is where they're from -Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. For years it was the heart of the Sunni insurgency. Al-Qaida and its affiliates imposed harsh Islamic law. Women couldn't leave their homes without being veiled, many girls schools were closed, there were no women sports.

Coach Abdullah decided to change that - a Christian coaching Muslim women.

Mr. ABDULLAH: (Through translator) I challenged this situation because women's sports in Iraq died since 1985. We used to be the champions of the Arab world. We decided to start the women's game, but quietly, as a secret thing.

SUTHERLAND: A secret thing indeed. They played in closed schools. Sometimes they couldn't practice because of the danger. Even now, it's not wholly safe.

(Soundbite of yelling)

SUTHERLAND: Nidalia Seer(ph) is the captain of the team. She's 31. She's been with the team since the beginning in 2006.

Ms. NIDALIA SEER: (Through translator) For a while when things were at their peak, when (unintelligible) started we became afraid. We were threatened (unintelligible) and they wouldn't allow us to go out, so we stopped practicing for two months.

SUTHERLAND: When thing were bad in Ramadi they were very bad. Bodies were left in the streets daily, executions, bombings. The fighting with American forces was intense. It was dangerous to even venture onto the street at times. But Nora Sammi(ph), another woman on the team, begged her parents to join the team regardless. You could hear the pride in herself and her teammates.

Ms. NORA SAMMI: (Through translator) Girls rarely went to school. How could they go to the club? But we challenged the situation in Ramadi. We started the club and challenged all the problems.

SUTHERLAND: Coach Abdullah says recruiting players was difficult but he was persistent.

Mr. ABDULLAH: (Through translator) We explained that woman should not be kept useless. Women have rights and duties. They should be able to see the world.

SUTHERLAND: They may not be able to see the world yet - they have little equipment, poor facilities, as witnessed by this desolate arena on the outskirts of Baghdad. They only practice here because it's better than anything in Ramadi. They can't afford to travel much inside Iraq, let alone play in other countries.

But Nora Sammi's argument for the team is the same as the one she used when she told her parents she was going to start playing handball in Ramadi.

Ms. SAMMI: (Through translator) They believe in destiny and I was always able to convince them that this is my destiny.

SUTHERLAND: There's an Iraq-wide women's handball tournament coming in July - 11 teams will be competing. Coach Abdullah is hoping for third place. Not bad for a team that only a little while ago was threatened with death for even daring to play the game.

J.J. Sutherland, NPR News, Baghdad.

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