Growing up in two different cultures, American and Sudanese, comes with its own set of challenges. However, in these cultures lies a beautiful intersection. Both, so complex, have allowed me to gain a dual perspective of the world I come from and the people I share my experiences with. For this reason, I learned to create a balance in the unique cultural experience I had, but the reality was that I experienced one culture – American – more than the other. In 2009, my parents decided that we would move to Sudan for some time. How timely was this news! I was looking for a stronger point of access to my Sudanese culture that I love so much but had limited understanding of. I embraced the move with open arms.
On my first day of school at Holms High School, in Khartoum, the students were lined up for the morning assembly dressed in pink and blue uniforms according to gender. All eyes were on me, the “American girl”, as I went on to the podium to introduce myself, already recognizing that I would have to prove myself. Everyone could tell I was nervous. When the bell rang, a student named Salam kindly approached me and helped me get oriented. From that day on, Salam and I were best friends, inseparable as two peas in a pod.
During a conversation at lunch, I told Salam about my passion for soccer and my desire to join a team. To my surprise, she told me that there was no room for such ambition because the school did not have a girl’s team. How could the school only provide boys with access to this form of recreation that I knew was so empowering, and how could no one speak out against it?! This exposed an even deeper reality; that it was culturally unacceptable for women to play sports, a privilege that I was never deprived of in the US. I was unwilling to give up the feeling of freedom that soccer gave me and so I still fought to join the team. The coach turned me down assuming that a woman could not possess a man’s strength, let alone any soccer skills. I wanted to challenge this notion right before his eyes, so I practiced alongside the team. Three days later he approached me, astounded by my skills and persistence. He invited me to start practicing with the boys and in just a week, word traveled like brushfire that there was a girl playing on the team.
I was able to break a specific cultural barrier on a personal level, but the reality of women living within the confines of a patriarchal society was much more profound. In that moment I realized that I had to take a risk in deserting the oppressive cultural norms and demand equal opportunities for Sudanese women, whether in the home or on the field. This extended beyond just a soccer team to me; women all over the country were experiencing gender-based discrimination and the inability to reach their full potential. I wanted to do something to change that. While the coach was busy attending to the men, I persistently collected names of girls who were interested in playing soccer and we managed to establish a girls team. This mere attempt symbolized something greater for us as women in Sudan and reminded us that a woman’s education, health, and engagement in sports is just as important as any other man’s.
Moving to Sudan was the best decision I have ever made. It revealed to me privileges that I wasn’t cognizant of and presented me with challenges that I had never fathomed experiencing. But after this experience, I know that going to a four year university, I will be able to overcome any obstacle that comes my way, because I was able to cross one difficult hurdle with the strength of Sudanese women in me.
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