The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, June 26, 2007



Training was rescheduled at the last minute. The location was far out of town. Traffic was heavy. Based on past experience jam karet (rubber time) would certainly be operating. No reason to hurry.

Wrong call. As the little hand touched 8 and the big hand hit 12 the Persekam team splendid in shimmering blue dashed out of their change rooms like the champions they hope to become.

Then followed two hours of intensive training that had the young women sweating under a blowtorch sun, the coach's relentless and demanding whistles ricocheting off the stadium's concrete walls so every blast was multiplied . If they thought it all too strenuous then they were keeping their complaints to themselves.

If discipline is an essential ingredient to success then the Malang Regency (East Java) women's soccer squad has a grand future.

But first they have to overcome off-field handicaps that Zinedine Zidane hopefuls never have to confront.

"Java isn't like Papua where the religion, culture and crowds support women in competitive sport," said Persekam president Cholis Bidajati. In Javanese soccer the big, powerful yet twinkle-toed Papuans are always discussed with awe.

"Some see soccer as men's business with women staying at home. This is changing. Women are coming to watch games and now they want to get involved.

"Yet there's still a residue who think it's inappropriate for women to be running around in public wearing sports gear."

It's not that the uniforms are immodest. Voyeurs lusting for a glimpse of cheeky underwear as players stretch and bend should go to Wimbledon. None of the women wore headscarves so taking a header can be the start of a real bad-hair day. A battered mop-top is hardly enticing.

The only flesh shows were grass-stained knobbly kneecaps peeping between floppy long shorts and high socks. Any man finding that arousing should consult a psychiatrist.

Cholis is an imposing no-nonsense figure in her starched government uniform and headscarf. It was probably the same when she played as a forward. (The posture, not the outfit.)

Only the most foolhardy cleric would suggest she's a subversive undermining Indonesian spiritual values by encouraging girls to boot balls rather than goggle sinetrons.

A widow for the past two years and mother of two, Cholis heads the statistics section in Malang Regency's planning department. She no longer plays but now busies herself with administration, promotion and fund raising.

In this she seems to have been reasonably successful with the Regency putting Rp 125 million (US $14,000) into Persekam. The Regency doesn't support Arema, the premier Malang men's football team that's backed by a cigarette company.

There's a Catch 22 factor operating here: Women's soccer can't attract sponsorship unless the sport becomes widely popular – but it can't reach that goal without more cash to fund competitions.

Last year Persekam played in Jakarta, drawing 1 – 1 against a university team, then got thrashed 4 – 1 by the dreaded Papuans.

Cholis is the only woman in Java on Indonesian men's soccer's Division 3 Committee.

Before she got involved with Persekam the few women who wanted to play had to do so with men. "But," Cholis quickly added, "they were always accompanied by their families."

"The problem is many get married and leave the sport so there's always a turnover," she said. "Because young women are studying or working long hours outside the home and traveling great distances they have little time for recreation.

"My grandfather and father were active in sport. My parents didn't oppose me playing soccer. Some think it's unfeminine, but I say you can be feminine off the field."

The squad in training watched by The Jakarta Post was more into footwork than facework. Before they go into competitions – often as crowd-warmers ahead of the boys' big match – Cholis gets them to put on lipstick. It's a sort of gender color code so the fans know there are real women under the shapeless tops and baggy bloomers.

Persekam is a mixed team, from veterans like high school sports teacher Siti Sumarni who at 37 shows no sign of weakening or ageing, down to teenagers who are still trying to master (sorry, mistress) the art of dribbling.

They come from all over the Republic and sometimes include Koreans, Taiwanese and the occasional Caucasian from the local international school.

Team sport is the great leveler where the only differences are the skills you can bring to your side, and where the universal language is a determination to win.

"It's fun, it keeps us fit and you make new friends," said Siti. "Some find they can't keep their boyfriends once they discover they're dating a soccer girl.
This is about skill and athleticism. It's not dangerous."

Reminded that the goalie had just taken a ball from a power punt straight into her bosom, doubling up like a man who'd had a boot up his crotch, Siti laughed. "You get used to it."

The weaker sex? Nonsense; the keeper was ready for the next rocket in a trice. If this had been the men's game the stretcher-bearers would already be sprinting across the sward.

Despite the progress (see sidebar) full emancipation is still at the far end of the field. Watching the warm ups in shady comfort an all-male self-appointed group of experts chewed over the problems faced by soccer girls.

They soon concluded that menstrual cycles were responsible for poor performances and a perceived inability to focus on the game. But when joined by a sweaty Siti, who fulfilled her gender-assigned role by bringing the blokes drinks, the bench pundits' positions were quickly declared offside. They retired, red-faced, to find another excuse.

Like many reformers in Indonesia Cholis rejects Western labels. She reluctantly accepted the compliment that she's a pioneer, but elbowed aside suggestions that she might be considered modern and progressive.

"I'm a traditional but not orthodox Muslim," she said with vigor. "There are problems with some ulama (religious scholars) condemning women in sport. I don't argue with them; we just go ahead. The media is at fault for giving these remarks so much prominence.

"I haven't had any mothers complain to me about their daughters wanting to play. Sport offers a healthy alternative to hanging about in shopping malls.

"We don't wear tight-fitting clothes. There's nothing in the Koran to forbid women taking part in sport as long as they take care of their family duties first."

In other words, hubby before hobby.



Women's soccer is doing OK in Asia, though it's well to remember the uplifting figures come from a low base.

China and North Korea are in the front ranks with Vietnam not far behind. The game in that country is sponsored by cosmetic and pharmaceutical firms, and insurance companies.

Muslim Bangladesh is also reported to be dashing ahead with women's soccer despite early opposition from fundamentalists.

According to the world football body FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) the number of registered male and female players is now 265 million worldwide. Although most are men the number of women in the sport has jumped 54 per cent in the past six years to 4.1 million.

The Asian Football Confederation has 85 million players making it the world's largest regional group.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 June 07)