There’s a Bend It Like Beckham scenario going on within Deena Rahman’s world. She tells Georgie Bradley about the lengths she’ll go to, to bring more women into football.
Deena Rahman is changing the face of football in Bahrain. Having arrived in 2010 to a patchy presence of women’s football, she’s now the driving force behind the increasing participation across the island as a coach at Soccer City for the Arsenal Soccer School Bahrain. As well as setting up a ladies’ programme, Deena coaches across girls and boys of all age groups including eight girls who play for the national team (which Deena plays for too). However, her efforts were met with initial doubts over her competency as a coach.
“I’ve had parents and children tell me that they weren’t sure about me coaching. But I thrive in that environment, and wanted to prove people wrong.”
Deena’s backstory alone could easily silence a gender-centred argument over her football skills. The half-English, half-Egyptian coach and player grew up in England and played for England at youth level, and played professionally for Fulham ladies club while training to get her coaching badges as part of her contract. With a year-long stint in Egypt playing for the Wadi Degla Arsenal Soccer School and coaching the under 19s national team, Deena racked up the experience.
When Arsenal Soccer School was set up in Bahrain, Deena had her work cut out for her. With a lack of female players, she got tournaments and session processes up and running, and was on her way.
“My aim and passion is women’s and girls’ football. I encountered the same issues girls and women face in Bahrain when I first started. I went to Fulham as the only girl but luckily I wasn’t too bad and the boys respected that and it all went from there. Now women’s and girls’ football in the UK is huge; it’s everywhere and my goal is to create that in Bahrain too.”
Inevitably, the cultural implications throw a spanner in the works with some players having to go about their passion in secret. “We’ve got a girl who secretly joined us but we didn’t realise until she didn’t get into group photos. It turned out she had been playing in secret. I would hope that when she told her family one day, they’d support her.”
In an attempt to shift the attitude towards football, Deena has paid visits to parents to educate them. “We’ve had a lot of girls come along and then disappear. We’ve got a girl who is quite young and doing really well but she hasn’t signed up for this term because her parents are saying she’s becoming a teenager and has to stop playing. It’s a shame. Sport is brilliant for health. A lot of parents say: ‘Studies come first, studies come first’ for boys and girls. I say that an hour and a half a week of football is going to help them.”
You only have to see Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Flames and Bahrain’s Joga TFA women’s teams, who participate in the ladies’ league, to understand the evolving progression of women and football. Now in their 10th season, the ladies’ programme is going from strength to strength. “We started off with four women in the ladies’ programme and now we’ve got 80 – I want to keep that going.”