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Ball's in her court

Gaza’s 1st woman basketball referee takes to the courts

Amira Ismail earned her license 3 years ago, but had a delay due to social pressures, pandemic

Palestinian referee Amira Ismail leads a basketball training session at Champions Academy in Gaza City on October 4, 2021 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Palestinian referee Amira Ismail leads a basketball training session at Champions Academy in Gaza City on October 4, 2021 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

At a recent basketball match in the Gaza Strip, the spectators were transfixed, less so by the action on the court than the fact the referee was a young woman.

Amira Ismail, 23, who officiated the Gaza City-Nuseirat match, has been making history in the enclave ruled by the Islamist terror group Hamas since 2007.

“Everyone looks at me in amazement on the basketball court, wondering, ‘Who is she? Is she a foreigner or an Arab? What is she doing here?'” Ismail told AFP.

Her passion for basketball motivated Ismail to seek a refereeing license from the the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which she earned three years ago after passing online exams.

But due to social pressures, and then a long pause forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ismail had yet to officiate a match — until this year.

“This time around, I was determined to get out there and use my international license on the field, because I deserve it,” she said.

Palestinian referee Amira Ismail counts points and fouls during a basketball match in Gaza City on September 13, 2021 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

So far this year, Ismail, who works day shifts in a hospital after completing her bachelor’s degree in pharmacology, has refereed five men’s matches, each time attracting curious glances.

Crowd sizes are still limited due to pandemic-linked restrictions. But Ismail said she is bracing for the post-coronavirus world, when more people will attend games and more eyes will be on her.

‘No longer afraid’

Reactions have so far been positive.

Gaza City player Ramzi Saba, wiping sweat off his face with a towel at the end of the match, said he was excited to see a female referee.

“I know it’s a normal thing outside Gaza, but I’ve never seen it before,” he said.

Palestinian referee Amira Ismail leads a basketball training session at Champions Academy in Gaza City on October 4, 2021 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

In the stands, Ibrahim Mahmoud, 43, followed the match, like the rest of the spectators, occasionally glancing at the table where Ismail was counting points and fouls.

“I was surprised that there was a girl on the court,” he said.

“It’s something new, but I hope that this culture will develop, and that young boys will learn to accept more women referees.”

There are 15 FIBA-certified referees in Gaza, Ismail and 14 men, and they officiate the matches of the four women’s teams and 12 men’s teams, said Ramzi al-Borai, an official at the Palestinian basketball federation.

Palestinian referee Amira Ismail trains young basketball players at Champions Academy in Gaza City on October 4, 2021 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Ismail said she hopes to encourage broader women’s participation in sports in Gaza.

“I hope that the mere idea of seeing girls do sports becomes a normal thing here, so that girls are no longer afraid of the eyes of the rest of society.”

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