Tunisian women join 'the beautiful game'
By Sylvia Smith for CNN
Many of the team are athletes, or former handball players.
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TUNIS, Tunisia (CNN) -- Football has never been more popular on the continent of Africa. It's the way to earn stardom and fortune -- at least if you're a man.
But it's only in the last year that women have finally taken up "the beautiful game" in the North African country of Tunisia.
Although the Tunisian women's national team are not the only female Islamic footballers, they have one distinct advantage. The Tunisian male team is the current holder of the prestigious Africa Nations Cup, giving the women's team something to match up to.
In the space of just under a year a national team has been selected and trained to a sufficiently high standard so as to play in a series of international games -- both at home and abroad. Many of the team are athletes, or former handball players.
Youssr Tourbenne, one of the mid-fieIders, says she and her colleague had been hoping to play at an international level for years.
"It's been a long wait for those of us who've been wanting to play football. Now we're happy to have the chance to show off our strong points. After all were doing it for Tunisia."
The initial idea for a female league didn't come from a woman, but a male university lecturer. Mohammed Moussbehi felt that Tunisia ought to keep pace with that symbol of Western superiority -- the United States. And its former colonial ruler, France.
From the Internet he learned about the French and American experience. "I found out that university clubs were more developed and ahead of local women's football clubs, "he explains.
"So with this information I went to the Ministry of Higher Education and put on an official women's tournament for the first time." It was held under the joint patronage of the Ministries of Higher Education and Sport.
Almost a thousand girls and women are now involved in football in Tunisia.
The game quickly outgrew its university base. Companies like Tunis Air began to field their own team. And a female league was born. Tunisia may be football crazy, but allowing Islamic women to run around in shorts in public is more a tribute to the country's general policies towards women.
Since Independence in 1956 Tunisian women have been encouraged to be the equals of men. Their emancipation is reinforced every year at a high-profile conference devoted to the rights of women.
The tournament usually co-incides with national women's day. In its third year that happened to be the day when Sepp Blatter president of football's world governing body, was over in Tunisia.
As head of football's world governing body FIFA, he gave Tunisia a telling off for not having a national women's team.
And the telling-off was well deserved. The Tunisians were a long way behind other African nations in forming a national team.
But with almost a thousand girls and women now involved in football in one way or another -- whether as referees, trainers or physiotherapists, there is little standing in the way of women achieving the same as their male counterparts.
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