Gaza's Female First Responders — Saving Lives, Breaking Stereotypes

Sameera Ehteram
War, death and destruction: Nothing can stop the women of Gaza.

The Palestinian Association of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) recently allowed female first-aid workers to cover a football Premier League for the first time, challenging society's preset notions about women's place in society. 


“We got the idea from the female first-aid workers’ coverage of the Women's World Cup under the age of 17, which was held Sept. 30 at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, and we executed it out of our belief in the ability of female first-aid workers to deal with all kinds of cases,” said Abbas al-Harazin, the chairman of the board of EMS.

The association had to pull off the task by some design. The Palestinian Football Association asked the EMS association to provide medical assistance in the Premier League matches; EMS agreed but “forgot” to mention the gender of the workers.

When the football association found out they balked but Harazin was able to placate them and got them to give the women a chance.

“The rejection was based on the Palestinian conservative traditions whereby such work would be inappropriate for women and male rescuers should be given priority. However, we managed to convince the association of the idea, and we asked it to give the girls a chance to assess their skills accordingly,” he recalls.

“Women are suffering a lot in a society that is trying to deprive them of everything,” Harazin said.

Feminist researcher Zainab Ghoneimy agrees, “The most important obstacles facing Palestinian women's progress are male dominance, narrow-mindedness, as well as the cultural and religious mentality, which still believes that a woman should stay at home.”

It's not that there aren’t any female medical and para-medical staff in Gaza or elsewhere Palestine, but the soccer field is predominantly male area and the idea of women treating men in the field doesn’t sit well with many.

The Palestinians also had the example of Jordan, another Arab, Muslim country.

"They have a problem that a female can touch the male [body] and do first aid," says Hanan Abu Qassem, the first female EMT to staff professional soccer games in Gaza.

"But it's something ordinary for me," says the experienced EMT who has treated victims of Israeli bombs during the 2014 Gaza war. Compared to that, soccer sprains and scrapes were supposed to be straightforward — more pleasant work," she says.

“Although our presence at the stadium is a quantum leap in the field, our experience was not as easy as we expected it to be. We were criticized by a public who could not seem to tolerate the idea of ??our presence at the stadium to give first aid to players. Also, the private medical crew of the playing teams obstructed our work and said we were unable to deal with the situation,” recalls rescue officer Manal Muslim.

It’s not just the Arab or Muslim countries that have women lagging in the fields of sports, especially soccer.

More than 30 million women play organized soccer around the world, FIFA says, yet only one has ever been elected to a full term on world soccer's all-powerful executive committee.

"It is about time to have more women involved in all areas whatever it is - politics, government, business and sports organization," Tatjana Haenni, FIFA deputy director of the competitions division and head of women’s football, told reporters during a pre-tournament news conference in June 2015.

"Football seems to be one of the more difficult ones... Personally I think we should have more women in decision-making positions."

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