Somali women defy danger to write basketball history

Coach Mohamed Sheekh gives instructions to his players during Somalia's game against Jordan on Monday, December 19.

Story highlights

  • Somalia's national women's basketball team played at this year's Arab Games in Qatar
  • The team had to prepare in the Mogadishu police HQ for extra security
  • Somali religious militants see sport as "un-Islamic"
  • In 2006, Somalia's Islamic Courts Union banned women from playing sport

(CNN)It's just a few minutes after the final whistle has blown and the shiny basketball court of the Al Gharafa Sports Hall in Doha is filled with shouts and cheers.

The sky blue-clad national women's basketball team from war-ravaged Somalia has just beaten Qatar, the host nation, at the 2011 Arab Games, in a hotly-contested match that ended 67-57 to the East African country.
"Words can't describe how I felt," says Canadian-born Somali team member Khatra Mahdi about last week's triumph. "We were all jumping up and down, there were tears in the girls' eyes -- history was made right there," she adds.
The victory marked a remarkable feat for the Somali players as it came against a backdrop fraught with difficulties and danger.
Notwithstanding Somalia's prolonged civil war and shattered sports infrastructure, the team says it had to prepare for the Games in the bullet-ridden police headquarters in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. There, the women would train for two to three hours a day under the watchful eye of security officers, tasked to safeguard them against religious militants targeting women playing the sport.
"We try to protect them outside and inside," says Said Duale, the secretary general of the Somali Basketball Federation, adding that the safety of the women is "taken very seriously."
In recent years, many Somali athletes have been threatened by members of the militant Islamist group Al Shabaab who see sport as an "un-Islamic" activity, according to Duran Ahmed Farah, the Somali National Olympic Committee (NOC) senior vice president for international relations.
In summer 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which then controlled Mogadishu, labelled sport as a "satanic act" and issued an order prohibiting women from playing sport, including basketball.
A few months later, the ICU was deposed but Al Shabaab, which has connections to al Qaeda, is still fighting to impose its own interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, on the country.
"The threat is always there -- there are people who will see girls playing sport as a devil's thing and they will not allow it," Farah says.
Women have been stoned to death for adultery; amputations and beheadings are common while in some areas Al Shabaab has banned listening to the radio.
"These girls are brave: in that kind of environme