Najat AlSayegh fights gender inequality and obesity in Kuwait through sport

By Sean Hurd, October 12, 2016

Under the bright lights of a local soccer field in Kuwait City in June, buzzing spectators and onlookers witnessed a sporting event rarely seen in the country of Kuwait: a women’s soccer tournament.

The event, called “Footb(ball) for All,” was hosted by 80 Percent, a social enterprise founded by Najat AlSayegh. Over eight days, the tournament showcased 130 female Kuwaiti footballers, who filled out 12 teams competing to become the league’s champions.

For a country in which women regained the right to vote just 11 years ago, an all-female soccer tournament viewed by approximately 850 people is a step forward as Kuwait continues to inch toward gender equality.

Opportunity for women to play sports in Kuwait, though slowly improving, has been unequal to the resources available to men. Football is considered the top sport in Kuwait, but traditionally that popularity has been restricted to men, despite a large interest from women.

“When it comes football in Kuwait, we have a lot of good women players,” AlSayegh said. “But they didn’t find any support previously from the government or private sector.”

Women often struggle to find a platform to practice the sports they enjoy. Two-time Olympic swimmer Faye Sultan, Kuwait’s lone female representative at this summer’s Rio Olympics, told Al-Jazeera in August that she had a difficult time finding an Olympic swimming pool to train in and had to settle for early-morning training prior to men’s practices.

“In Kuwait, we have beautiful facilities,” Sultan said. “It’s just that for a girl, they are so much harder to access.”

AlSayegh, 29, experienced much of the same inequality growing up in Kuwait City, so she has dedicated herself to both fighting for and empowering women through sport.

After receiving a degree in political science from Kuwait University, AlSayegh worked in various political roles, including the 2009 parliamentary campaign of Aseel al-Awadhi, one of the first four women elected to Kuwaiti Parliament. AlSayegh spent three years working with the Kuwaiti ministry of youth affairs, focusing on youth leadership and development. She now works for the Kuwaiti public authority of youth and is the head of the international relations department.

Although AlSayegh understands that women’s equality in Kuwait must come in the form of governmental support and legislative change, her main vehicle for empowering women, on an interpersonal level, has been sport.

AlSayegh has worked to strike a balance between politics and sport, as well as between the public and private sectors, to create change in her country. So far, she’s been successful. Her soccer tournament was not only sponsored by the Kuwaiti government, but the championship game was attended by Kuwait’s minister of youth and sports. That made it the first women’s tournament he has attended, AlSayegh said.

“Sports is a language that everyone can speak — young, old, from different backgrounds, different religions as well,” AlSayegh said.

AlSayegh’s advocacy is also geared toward making an impact on Kuwait’s public health crisis. The country has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.

“These high rates will affect women in many ways,” AlSayegh said. “If you have obese women, they are going to have obese kids, and the snowball effect is going to happen. It’s a real issue and a problem that needs to be cured.”

In 2015, AlSayegh traveled to the United States as one of 16 participants in the Global Sports Mentoring Program, which matches emerging female change-makers in sports from around the world with American female sport executives. AlSayegh was paired with Laura Dixon, who serves as the executive director of community responsibility for Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

“She was in a very hard position as a woman leading in a space — not just in a space that’s a part of the industry but a part of the world where woman have not had many advocates,” Dixon said. “She is making change.”

As part of the mentorship, AlSayegh spent a week with Dixon in San Antonio, Texas. AlSayegh said that when it comes to the empowerment of women in sports or beyond, it isn’t about a comparison between Kuwait and the U.S. or anywhere else — more needs to be done for women universally.

While in Texas, AlSayegh met influential sports figures, such as the director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas, Chris Plonksy, and the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, R.C. Buford.

For AlSayegh, the most inspirational person she met while in San Antonio was Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA. Before meeting Hammon, AlSayegh watched her coach the Spurs from a meeting room in awe. Hammon was someone AlSayegh could relate to as a woman working in a male-dominated field.

AlSayegh asked Hammon what it was like to coach men in the NBA, and Hammon told her she had to work hard to gain respect and be seen as an equal in the league.

“This was a really inspiring moment for me,” AlSayegh said. “As a woman, you have to keep working and never give up, even if you feel this is not your place to be.”

AlSayegh has no intention of slowing down, and her organization is working on constructing a women’s soccer league in November. AlSayegh also has her sights set on expansion to include all Arab women athletes. She wants to expand her soccer tournament to include other women from the Gulf Cooperation Council, a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries.

“We’re trying to make it bigger,” AlSayegh said. “I really hope that I create an impact, no matter what position I am in. It doesn’t matter where I’m at, as long as I’m seeing results.”

Sean Hurd is a Digital Media Associate for ESPN. Follow him @seanahurd.

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