From a war zone to the FIFA boardroom, a female footballer finds her way
Honey Thaljieh grew up in a Palestinian battle zone. One day, on the streets of Israeli-occupied Bethlehem, she passed a group of boys playing football (or American soccer). By chance, they passed her the ball. Soon, Thaljieh discovered that she was a gifted athlete. But more than that, football became Thalijeh’s path to freedom and dignity. It took her to Europe and the US, where she saw young people playing on manicured fields and living in peaceful conditions. In 2003, Thaljieh helped found the Palestinian Women’s National Football Team and was named its first captain. Now retired from competition, Thaljieh works as a manager of corporate communications for FIFA, supporting projects that promote gender equality, life skills, health, education and peace through sport.
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IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
In 2003, Honey Thaljieh co-founded the first-ever Palestinian Women’s National Football Team. That’s “soccer” to us Americans.
People sometimes ask me, “How many languages do you speak?” I said, “English, Arabic and football.” Yes, now a little bit German. But football is definitely a language. When we go anywhere around the world, and you say, “I come from football,” people, like, are impressed, and then they start — you start having a conversation. You make a lot of friends. Football, for me, it’s my life and it has always been. And it’s my community, it’s my surrounding, it’s my leisure time, it’s my free time, it’s my work, it’s my — you know? So I, I breathe football, literally.
IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Honey Thaljieh isn’t just a gifted athlete. She’s a leader, a rebel, a breaker of barriers. Now retired from competition, Honey works as a manager of corporate communications for FIFA. She recently told her story to reporter Ken Shulman.
HONEY: So my name is Honey Thaljieh. I was born in Bethlehem, Palestine. Well, I have a big family, so we are five: two brothers, two sisters — I’m in the middle — together with my parents. We grew up in a very small house, in a very old house, actually, in the narrow streets of Bethlehem, close to the church where it’s believed Jesus was born.
I know this is a very broad question, but what was it like in Bethlehem at the time — politically, with the occupation?
HONEY: Well, I grew up in — I would say in a war zone. Right? Like, my childhood was so completely different than other kids growing up in different environments around the world. And I know that my story is the same story as, probably, many kids growing up in difficult circumstances, conditions, political barriers, et cetera. So yes, I grew up in the 90s, where the first war hit already in 1988, and then it continued. It never stopped. Every time we think that I grew older, something would change, the situation will be better, the future will arise. But unfortunately, from one war to another, from another tragedy to another catastrophe. All my childhood was spent in fear, injustice, inequality and insecurity, because I grew up knowing that tomorrow might never come because of the situation. So it’s really outstanding. It’s horrible. I never wish that any child will grow up in such a childhood, because sometimes, it’s just traumatized you all your life. Or sometimes it makes you stronger and give you the opportunities to fight and try to change your life, and wish for a better future for others.
KEN: Can you recall one or more specific incidents that were truly traumatizing, terrifying? When you just realized that this was not a childhood that anyone would want?
HONEY: I mean, absolutely. Raiding our house was, was an issue. You know, in the first and second intifada, like, I was still a teenager, and before that, as a child, when soldiers — when hundreds of soldiers — raid your house and ask you to be out for no reason. I was sleeping, actually, and then my sister came and said, “Honey, the soldiers are in. Just get up.” And I thought I was having a nightmare. So like, I couldn’t even turn. I couldn’t even bother to get out, because I thought, “It’s just a nightmare.” And then the voices has increased and the soldier was trying to push to see who is in — sleeping, of course, because they were looking everywhere and trying to find anything that — I don’t know what’s in their heads. But anyway. So it’s terrifying. It’s, it’s still, like, comes with nightmares from time to time. It’s, it’s a trauma that we lived through and have been through all our life.
KEN: At what point did you discover football?
HONEY: So football, football was the — actually, the glimpse of hope that, for one reason — from the universe or from heaven or from God — that I was talented in this beautiful game. So we just basically had nothing to do as children. You know, we grew up with very limited resources. My parents were very — coming from a very modest family. Their main mission was that they managed to get us fees to go to school. That is the one, number-one mission. The rest was not affordable. The only option was, like, just seeing the kids — my neighbors, the boys playing football in the street — in my neighborhood. And then I thought, “Why should I not join?” And there, when I started joining them, I discovered my love to this game, and I found out that I was really good and I was talented, literally, like with my moves, with my running, with my skills, with tackling the ball. Yes, at that time, we didn’t have a proper ball. It was mainly newspapers wrapped into each other, because the situation was not the best. And I found my freedom there. I found my, my dignity. I found myself, and I found that this is my world.
KEN: Do you remember the first time you tried to play with the boys in the street?
HONEY: Of course. The first time I wanted to kick around with them, it was by chance, because I was passing by and then the ball comes to me and then I started dribbling with it. Because I saw how people play football on TV. I grew up watching football on our black-and-white TV at that time with my father and my siblings. So I knew how it feels. So I started dribbling with the ball. And then the boys were like, “Oh my God!” you know, like, “How come?” Because I’m sure, at that time, they never seen a girl playing football or dribbling with the ball. So at the beginning they were shocked, but at the same time, they were kind of happy. But they didn’t want to show it, that, “Oh, she could join us in playing in the streets.” So it was a mixed feeling of their reactions — which I still see it until today, whether I’m a woman on the pitch or off the pitch.
KEN: How did your parents react? You, as a little girl. I know — [HONEY LAUGHS] I’m sure they’re incredibly proud of you now. But was there some resistance from your parents?
HONEY: Well, you know, of course. I mean, when you start something that it is not common, it’s always a challenge to accept something new, to accept someone stepping out of the comfort zone, trying to embrace something different in a society where it’s believed what girls should do and what should not do. My mom has always been proud, and so she was supporting me at all level. She’s my role model in that, because she understood that, the society and the challenges and all that. But she — she knew that I developed a great passion for this game and I was good at it, because she was watching me at school and she was following me and encouraging me — secretly, actually, that my dad doesn’t get angry. I was not allowed to go to the street from my parents and mainly from my dad. And of course, the challenge started when I said, “But look, we are two girls and two boys in our family.” When my, my brothers are in the street, he never said anything. And when I was in the street, it was like, “You should be home,” and all this stuff. I’m like, “How can you justify that my brothers can play in the street while I am not allowed? What is — what is the reason?” I was believing that we were born equal, you know? And that’s where my, kind of, revolution started, and where I go and where I am since I’m little. I grew up, I think, as a rebel who needs answers for things that it is not convincing. And he never had a convincing answer, of course, like he would tell me, “Yeah, but girls shouldn’t do that.” Why not? Yeah, it’s the culture. It’s the mentality. Yeah, but so what? You know, this word haram goes along all the way from the moment you are born until you die. This is haram. This is shame. You shouldn’t do this. You know, whether if you laugh loud, or you sit differently, or you dress differently or — or you are with the boys or, you know, you — you show confidence. It’s always the society that puts you into boxes and limits you the way that they want.
KEN: Did your father eventually come around, and how did he come around?
HONEY: Of course. When he switched, my dad, it was one of the biggest event that we launched: the first league in Palestine in 2008, when the president of Palestine was there and the president of FIFA, at that time, and I was the captain of the Women’s National Team. So, and then it was this event in all of the newspapers. Of course, my dad took the newspaper and he was like, “Did you see my daughter?” [LAUGHS] “She’s with the presidents of this.” And, you know, so now he always keeps telling me, “Honey, please change the story.” [LAUGHS] I’m like, “Well, I am here today thanks to you.” You know, so I take this as an opportunity that, without all these challenges, probably I am not the person who I am today, right? Because I was put under pressure, I was asked to not do things, and I was punished sometimes. But that’s who made me who I am. So I think he became proud seeing that I am portrayed in TVs and magazines and newspaper, raising up the voice, fighting for other girls, fighting for humanity, fighting for rights, fighting. So for me, football was the way, actually, to fight for a lot of issues.
KEN: Football was her way: A way that made her father proud, a way that gave her purpose that took her to Europe and the US, where she saw young people far from that tragic backdrop of war playing soccer on manicured grass fields smooth enough to shoot pool on. In 2003, she helped found the Palestinian Women’s National Football Team. She was named its first captain. Her world was changing. Anything seemed possible. But representing Palestine on the pitch wasn’t easy.
HONEY: To tell you how this affected our results, our achievement — of course it did. Because how can we meet in one place, on one stadium, when girls from Ramallah and Jerusalem and Jericho and Bethlehem can’t meet in one place without being delayed at checkpoints and borders? And how can we meet, also, the girls from Gaza? There’s huge separation between the two regions, while it’s only a maximum two hour’s drive from, from the West Bank to Gaza. So of course, like, it doesn’t give you the best talent of the people, because you can’t select, you don’t see the talent that exists in different places, in different cities. But also, like, the infrastructure. You can’t even build a normal football pitch, because then you need to have the authorization from the Israeli authorities. You can’t build on areas, because it’s split between Area B and A and C: A for the Palestinians, B, it’s mixed, and C for the Israeli — it’s, it’s so complicated at all level. Like it’s even, like, hard to, like — for people to understand it. You know, like, my sister lives in Jerusalem, and I’m not allowed to go and see her whenever I want, because I need a special permit from the Israeli government. And that is insane, because we just live 15 kilometers away from each other. And whenever she needs to see us or need to see her, we need a specific reason to write and to apply. And that is really not human, even. And that affects all the sports, definitely, from infrastructure to free of movement to traveling to participate in tournaments and events. So we had to travel from Jordan all the time. Some, some of my teammates, they didn’t even make it to participate in championships, because they were stopped and was asked to come back, to return back. So we have to live up with all these challenges every single day in our life.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
IBTIHAJ: Now back to our conversation with the co-founder of the Palestinian Women’s National Football Team, Honey Thaljieh.
KEN: As captain of the — of the National Team, and as captain of other teams, were there times when your teammates just lost hope and you had to find a way to motivate them?
HONEY: Of course.
KEN: They would come to you and say, “What’s the point?” And what was the point?
HONEY: Of course. Of course, there’s a lot of time, you know, we lost hope. We are also vulnerable human being, because of course, football helped to get us out from all these difficulties. But still, we — we come back home and there is much stuff, much bigger. That is the girl who can’t have bread for dinner, for example, on their table. Or there’s a girl can’t go to school, because the parents can’t afford paying her for school. Or we have to walk distance, because there’s no transportation or money to afford to, to get back home after a football training. And, and these difficulties, of course, make them lose hope. Because also, we didn’t have enough equipment, support, financial means. So we say, “Why we are doing it?” But of course, our hope was that, no, we want to continue doing it, because this is how we deliver our message. This is how we show the world a different narrative, a different story about the Palestinian people, about the struggle we live. This is our voices for the outside world, to show that we love life and we want to fight for it in a beautiful way. It’s in a fair play in football, which is a just game, which is bringing people together, which is for all, regardless of your nationality, gender, background, whatever differences. Football brought us together. So it brought us to cry together, to laugh together, to smile together, to feel with each other. And that was our hope. When we come together, that was our happiness. Indeed, that was — we felt that we own the world. The world is ours, and in football, we believe that we are free, regardless of all the circumstances that surrounded us from every corner, on every level.
KEN: But how did it come to your mind that sport was a way to express a narrative?
HONEY: Because in sports, I felt like it gave me so many things. It built up my confidence. It made me fight a whole of society and a whole of norms and traditions. It empowered me as a person, as a young girl, that I have a cause and through the sports, through the football, I can fight this cause. Because I said, football is justice, you know, football is a just game. So I thought with this game, I can build up on so many things and fight for others, as well, because it happened to me and I managed and I went through all the circumstances, through all the odds and the impossibilities. I found it — I found a way where it’s possible.
And then I started to believe that no, for me, it’s not about just winning or losing. It’s about much more than this. Yes, we didn’t win any tournaments, I must say. We were amateur level. We were losing most of the time, actually, because we didn’t have the capacity, the right infrastructure, equipment, coaches at that time, everything. Like, it was very amateur, but we still participated in tournaments and events. But for us, it was putting Palestine on the map where I knew, politically, we are still not on the map, sadly speaking. I mean, the UN recognized Palestine as a state just recently — with even, like, an observer state, not a fully state. So what politics couldn’t do, football managed to do. And that’s — for me, was the way to go forward. Football is our way. Football is — it’s an instrument to fight all these challenges, prejudices. Yes, of course, it’s not going to change the world and make me have a free Palestine — which I wish one day —
HONEY: — but it’s definitely empowered — inshallah. [LAUGHS] But it definitely empowered me and empowered so many girls, so many youngsters, to have a better future and to move forward.
KEN: In 2005, the team competed in the West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championships in Jordan. Four years later, in 2009, Honey went back to Jordan, this time for a FIFA training course, and her world changed again.
HONEY: While I was training, like, my knee flipped, and I heard the tick and — [CHUCKLES] and that was really, like — I was not aware of, of the injuries at the time, because what would — do I know about it? Back then I thought, “That’s just a click.” But I tell you, as we say in Arabic, I saw the stars in the day, you know. [LAUGHS] Then I thought, “It’s OK,” so I started working on it, because three weeks after, the Palestinian FA was organizing the biggest-ever football match for women, in a stadium for the first time, on 11 sides, on the Faisal al-Husseini Stadium, with 15,000 spectators, with FIFA presence, with world leaders. And I got injured just three weeks before that match. And this match was the match that I was waiting for since I started playing football. So for me, it was really one of the saddest moments in my life, because as I mentioned, football was everything for me. But it also taught me so many things. It taught me that, OK, we don’t stop here. Now what’s next?
KEN: So what was next? Honey had already inspired thousands of girls all over the world. She’d brought pride and dignity to her people. How do you follow that act? For Honey, the next act was a master’s degree through FIFA that brought her and her message to England, Italy and Switzerland, and prepared her for the next chapter of her journey.
HONEY: Changing perceptions, changing mindsets, telling them who we really are as Palestinians — because a lot of media portray us in a dark way that, you know, they don’t cover the real truth about the Palestinian people and the potentials we have, the talent we have, the education we have, the personalities we have. So then I thought, after the injury, that is also my goal, to carry this mission and to change the lives of girls, not only in Palestine but beyond.
KEN: And Honey continues to pursue that goal with determination, with hope, and, as always, with a smile — even when she doesn’t feel like smiling.
HONEY: Of course, definitely, the political situation was overwhelming. And still overwhelming, for all athletes and people living still under occupation. You know, Palestine still under occupation since 1948, and things are not even improving or even developing. So we are losing hope, step by step. Every time we think the Prime Minister change, things will change — you know, we are fed up. People want peace, people want justice, people want to go to work peacefully. We want a health environment. We want free movement, which we don’t have. And that’s where it comes to how the political environment affected me as an athlete. Definitely, because everywhere we go, there is a checkpoint. There is a wall. There is a high — eight meters — concrete wall. Like, if I go back to Bethlehem, I need two days traveling back to Bethlehem from Zurich, while I can do it only in three hours and a half from Zurich to Tel Aviv. But because I’m Palestinian, I don’t have the right to. Because I live under occupation, I’m from the West Bank, I have a green ID. The differences between the IDs, the plates of the cars — I have a car in Bethlehem. I cannot drive more than five kilometers with the car, because after that, there is a wall, there is a checkpoint. So you just go within a circle, like a prison open from up. And that’s what we are facing every day in our life. And it didn’t change. I think, in my opinion, it became worse, because the walls didn’t even exist before 2003.
KEN: I’m thinking that when you were seven, walking home, and you first stopped to play with those boys, you didn’t have any of this in mind. This evolved over time, and it’s really very beautiful.
HONEY: I knew, growing up in a circumstances where you can be really miserable and frustrated and depressed. But I knew that also we need to understand that life is too short and we need to embrace every opportunity and be happy of what we have. And if we are not, we need to find a way to change it. So I consider myself as an activist for these topics, because I have been through them, literally. Like, if you talk about patriarchy, I grew up in a patriarchal society. If you talk about football, that it is mainly dominated sport, I played football all my life. If you talk about women in a macho society, in a boys club, I am a woman who is working in football and who has all been my life in football. So if you talk about human rights, whether it’s in football or in societies, I have been through all the human rights issues that I had to grow up with every day in my life. My fight is for freedom, for justice, for equality at all level — whether it’s for Palestinians or for people all around the world. Because I know what does it mean to go through all this. I have been through this. So if I have the power, just — with the little power, if I have it, I am ready to use all the capacity I have to influence, change and inspire others for change. And football is my way.
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Ken Shulman and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation.
Next week on the podcast: Scout Bassett is a Paralympian, a five-time world medalist, and most importantly, she’s my good friend. And she has a message for other girls and young women living with disabilities.
A woman with a disability is beautiful, and she’s not evil and she’s not scary and a villain, in that she can be powerful and strong and, you know, all the things that she wants to be, because that’s how I see myself. But — but I say that because I didn’t always feel that way about myself.
IBTIHAJ: That’s in two weeks, after the winter holiday, on The Long Game.