A First In Gaza: A Female Treats Injured Male Soccer Players

Nov 7, 2016
Originally published on November 8, 2016 10:25 am

Thousands of soccer fans chant and beat drums in the stands. An announcer narrates, on live radio, the start of the match.

Players from Gaza's top soccer league sprint and dive for the ball. Going for a header, two players collide — and one lands on the leg of the other.

What happens next has never happened in Gaza before: A woman in a pink Muslim headscarf dashes out from the sidelines. She's there to treat the player whose leg was injured.

In the West Bank and Gaza, female doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians have worked pretty much everywhere their male counterparts do — except at soccer games. These are all-male events, often rowdy, which until now have used all-male medical teams — just as in much of the world. It's rare to see a female sports trainer at La Liga matches in Spain, for example, or even in England's Premier League.

But after another Arab country, Jordan, began employing female EMTs at its soccer games this year, Gaza followed suit.

Not everyone is happy about it.

"They have a problem that a female can touch the male [body] and do first aid," says Hanan Abu Qassem, 28, who in October became the first female EMT to staff professional soccer games in Gaza. She was the one in the pink veil who sprinted onto the field to treat the player with the injured leg. "But it's something ordinary for me."

She's an experienced EMT, having 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.

But at her first game last month, she and a female colleague were booed by the crowd — and lambasted on social media. Male soccer fans, offended by their presence, took their complaints to Gaza's soccer federation, which told Abu Qassem she might be locked out of future games because of the backlash, and for her own safety.

The backdrop of all this is an ongoing political struggle between the Islamist group Hamas, which governs Gaza, and Fatah, the party that runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and is seen as more liberal. Injured players are treated by municipal EMTs here, who aren't required to be affiliated with any political party. They provide all medical care at soccer games, unlike in America or Europe, where private sports trainers, employed by individual teams, are often the first responders.

"If I cannot enter the field, I may be crying," Abu Qassem says. "Because I have ambition. I'm anxious to be a very famous EMT."

She is already, because of this controversy. Before one recent match, as NPR accompanied her, guards initially prevented the ambulance Abu Qassem was riding in from entering Gaza's main soccer stadium. Amid scuffles and yelling, they acquiesced after the head of the Palestinian EMT Association intervened.

"I'm surprised to see a woman doing this job!" says soccer fan Kamal Bahoum, 59, with a white beard. He was injured during the chaos at the stadium gate as he tried to get in, and went to Abu Qassem in search of a bandage for his bleeding hand. In the end, he had no qualms about getting medical treatment from a woman, he said.

At the game NPR attended, there were no boos directed toward Abu Qassem — but there were stares. She says she dressed more conservatively than she does most other days, wearing a pink headscarf and a long, loose-fitting black robe with a reflective vest over it.

Only three women appeared to be present in the entire stadium of thousands — Abu Qassem, a female sports journalist, and this NPR reporter.

"As female journalists, we face the same problems that they face," says Sabah Ahmed, a reporter for a Gaza sports website. "But day by day, the people start to deal with us. They are welcoming us. Actually, I'm surprised."

Abu Qassem ends up riding in the ambulance to the hospital with the player who hurt his leg. Turns out it was broken. She says she sat by his hospital bedside as he cried — not out of pain, but out of fear his soccer career would be over.

Later that night, local TV stations in Gaza replay — over and over again — footage of the player's injury, with his leg bent at an unnatural angle. It shows him being carried off the field on a stretcher. The report doesn't say who treated him.

But if you pause and look closely, you can spot a hot pink hijab in the background.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Like pretty much everywhere outside the U.S., soccer is the sport in the Gaza Strip. And now, when players get injured, there's a new site on the soccer field - a female paramedic. Yes, for the first time, a woman is among those treating injured male players. And as Lauren Frayer reports from Gaza City, not everyone is happy about it.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: After some uncertainty at the gate to Gaza's main soccer stadium, guards finally let an ambulance roll in. It's carrying one of the most controversial figures ever to set foot on this field. She's the first female emergency medical technician to staff a professional soccer game in Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

FRAYER: Inside, thousands of soccer fans rally. A radio announcer narrates the start of the game. And 28-year-old Hanan Abu Qassem, dressed in a bright-pink headscarf and black floor-length robe, begins her work, tending to a man injured in a scuffle at the stadium gate.

KAMAL BAHOUM: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: Kamal Bahoum, an older man with a beard, says he's surprised to find a woman doing this job, but extends his bleeding hand for a bandage nonetheless. In the Palestinian territories, female doctors, nurses an EMTs work pretty much everywhere their male counterparts do, except for soccer games, often rowdy, all-male events, which, until now, have used all-male medical teams, just like in much of the world.

But after another Arab country, Jordan, began employing female EMTs at its soccer games this year, Gaza followed suit. At her first game last month, Abu Qassem and a colleague were booed and later lambasted on social media, she explains in an interview at her office behind the stadium.

HANAN ABU QASSEM: Yeah, they have a problem that female can touch the male do first aid. But it's something ordinary for me (laughter).

FRAYER: She's an experienced EMT, having treated victims of Israeli bombs during the 2014 Gaza war. But male soccer fans offended by Abu Qassem's presence took their complaints to Gaza's soccer federation, which told her she might be locked out of future games.

ABU QASSEM: If I cannot enter the field now, I maybe cry, you know, because I have ambitions, you know? I'm anxious to be a very famous EMT.

FRAYER: Back on the field, the crowd stops chanting. Two players have just collided. One lies on the ground, clutching his leg. Abu Qassem sends her male assistants out with a stretcher.

ABU QASSEM: They will bring me the injury, and I will try and make treatment for it inside the car. And then we will go to the hospital now, you know?

FRAYER: It looks bad. He's not standing up.

ABU QASSEM: Fracture.

(Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: The ambulance speeds away. Watching all of this is Sabah Ahmed, the only other woman, as far as I can tell, in this stadium of thousands. Ahmed is a sports journalist, and she says she sympathizes with Abu Qassem.

SABAH AHMED: As a female journalist, we face the same problems that they face. But day by day, the people start to deal with us.

FRAYER: She says three more women have joined the ranks of Gaza's sports press corps in the past year. That night, Palestinian TV replays footage of the injured soccer player being carried off the field. The report doesn't mention who treated him. But if you look closely, you can spot a hot-pink hijab in the background. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.