On being … allowed

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. I’ve always loved Thanksgiving and though it took awhile, I’m reconciled to the differences in how it’s celebrated on both sides of the border. For example, in the U.S., once the turkey and pumpkin pie are over, the weekend is focused on football and shopping. Here, folks tend to squeeze in the turkey and pumpkin pie between cottage closing activities and getting out to see the autumn colours.

Despite these subtle differences, for me, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on – and celebrate – all the things in my life that I’m thankful for. Like many, family, friends, food, and a lovely place to call home dominate my list.

But one particular news story from the past week has made me think about how much I have that I value and that I take for granted. The story was about the fact that for the first time in decades, women were allowed to attend a FIFA World Cup qualifying match in Iran. When I first heard the story, I thought I misunderstood. I had never heard – or thought – about women being prohibited from attending a soccer game.

I admit that I have exactly zero interest in soccer (at the World Cup level or any level), so perhaps it should not have surprised me that I’d never heard that women going to a game was an issue. I remembered being shocked at the news in 2018 that women in Saudi Arabia had finally “won” the right to drive, but I never thought much about what else women needed permission for in some places.

Though there are obvious common denominators to these two stories, somehow the idea of not being able to attend a soccer game seems very different to me. I guess I always assumed that things like driving bans are rooted in some misguided view of what women are capable of. All those ridiculous fictions about women being the weaker sex, or not as physically as capable, or not able to concentrate and focus – arguments that are total crap – are what I assumed were behind the panoply of limitations put on women in so many parts of the world. But none of these excuses could possibly apply to women who simply want to attend a soccer game.

Financial circumstance is another factor that often has a more direct impact on women than men. How many stories we’ve heard of families who – when they can’t afford to educate all their children – choose to only educate the boys. Of course, often what’s behind such decisions is another unfairness: the fact that girls are expected to work at home, while boys are free to learn – or just play. But even if we assume that poverty is equally disadvantageous to men and women – money can’t be behind why Iranian women soccer fans were not allowed to attend a game. (Clearly these women had the financial means to afford to attend a FIFA World Cup qualifying match.)

I’ve always been aware of the tremendous good fortune of having been born where – and when – I was. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that for granted. So, while I knew from an early age that there were things I wouldn’t be able to do or be – for example, a physician, an astrophysicist, or a concert pianist – I’ve always believed the reasons for this have to do with my personal aptitudes, skills, and interests. In other words, these things were never off limits because of my gender.

Mind you, I’m not saying there’s true equality between men and women in Canada or the U.S. – the wage gap and glass ceiling are prime examples of the inequality that still exists. But women are not systemically discriminated against here, as they are in so many other places in the world.

I suppose, in the spirit of celebrating Thanksgiving, I could embrace the Iranian soccer game story as a victory for Iranian women. Indeed, maybe it will prove to be the first step in “allowing” women other freedoms. I certainly hope it is. But honestly, though the story brought home to me all the freedoms I enjoy, more than anything, it made me angry for all the women of the world who need special permission to do something as simple as attend a soccer game.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


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