social cohesion & integration
Interview with Honey Thaljieh, Corporate Communications Officer, FIFA
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Smart Cities & Sport: Honey, your mother says “you have been breaking barriers since you were conceived”. Can you tell us your story?
Honey Thaljieh: That’s true! My mother had undergone a surgery not to get pregnant again after having already two children. And despite this, I still managed to be conceived! I was born as a Palestinian, Christian, Arabic woman. So many identities that all come with restrictions and barriers. My dream had always been to play football and I started at a very young age to play with the boys on the street. But it was not well seen at a time in Bethlehem for a girl to play football. My father even made me promise that I would never play again; a promise that – fortunately – I did not keep!
It’s when I joined the University of Bethlehem in 2003 that I played in my first organised team for women. In 2004, we were 5 girls playing on the team. After that, more and more women started to get involved in football in Palestine and we created a national women’s team. I had the incredible honour to be the team’s captain for seven years. Today, hundreds of girls are now playing football in Palestine in 19 different clubs! I would have never thought when I was playing on the streets that the sport would grow so quickly and that I would have the career that I’m having now. Women’s football started from nothing in Palestine.
SC&S: You now work for FIFA. Can you please tell us about your role and in which ways you contribute to breaking down barriers for girls to play football?
HT: I indeed work as a Corporate Communications Manager at FIFA now. I work on FIFA’s humanitarian projects with a specific focus to spread the message that football is for everyone. I use FIFA’s platforms like the World Cups to empower girls and women in football, break down barriers and include them in the society. For example, last year, during the Women U-17 World Cup in Jordan, we developed programmes that enabled women refugees to attend football matches and to get involved in the sport. Also, during the Women U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea last year, we organised initiatives to end violence against women through football. This is my way of giving back to the sport that has given me so much. At a time when the world at large and the game of football still encounter inequalities and exclusion, I managed together with my colleagues to create and lead the FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion for the third consecutive year, to highlight FIFA’s message of gender equality, inclusion, and diversity in football and beyond.
SC&S: You say that “our identities can become our prison”. Still today, many girls all around the world face discrimination towards participating in sport simply because of their gender. How can governments and cities contribute to changing this culture of sport as a ‘male activity’ and help to break down the barriers to girls’ participation in sports?
HT: I believe that governments and political leaders have a major role to play in breaking down these barriers. Of course, investments can be made in programmes to encourage girls and women to practice sport. But the real difference in a society can come from a great leader. If a political leader has a strong and genuine belief that empowering women in sport is good for society, it will eventually contribute in changing mentalities and a changed culture. Leaders spread messages that result in investments, not only from governments, but also from the private sector. All it takes is one leader to make a big difference! But this doesn’t mean that we underestimate the role of people. The power of people to create change is massive and together we can make a difference.
SC&S: In your opinion, what will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women in sport?
HT: The biggest challenge for the next generation of women will be the same as for the current one: to be heard. Women have to keep fighting to change mentalities and perceptions about the fact that they cannot be as involved in sports as men are. They must keep believing in the cause, because it is a noble one. A society where women are empowered is a strong society, and sports are a very powerful way to achieve such empowerment. Societies need to provide the right platforms for women and girls to get involved in sports.
SC&S: Who do you admire as a women leader?
HT: I admire many women, and I take inspiration from all of them, but at the moment, I am particularly inspired by the Secretary General of FIFA, Fatma Samoura. She comes from a humanitarian background and became the most powerful woman in football. Now, she uses her humanitarian experience to spread FIFA’s message all around the world. Taking such a job despite the difficult times that FIFA has been going through was, I’m sure, not an easy decision, but she did it because she believes in the power of football – and sports – to change societies.