In African women’s football, homophobia still poses a barrier

In African women’s football, homophobia still poses a barrier

Nigeria’s hegemonic decades-long dominance over Africa’s women’s football scene has long masked a dark secret: Openly homosexual players are not allowed.

The Super Falcons are Africa’s most prosperous national team, but this discriminatory attitude has cast a shadow over their success and led to the ostracisation of talented footballers over the years.

In 2014, the Nigerian parliament passed a bill into law prohibiting same-sex unions and making them punishable by as much as 14 years in prison.

While homosexuality was already illegal before that, sports insiders say the edict was a backdrop for a concerted campaign against queer people in football.

‘Because they were lesbians’

In a 2011 interview published by the local Daily Sun newspaper, former Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) technical assistant James Peters said he had overseen the removal of players from the women’s national team “because they were lesbians”.

Two years later, comments made by Dilichukwu Onyedinma, then chairperson of the Nigeria Women’s Football League (NWFL) and member of the NFF, drew the attention of world football governing body FIFA. In response to her categorical directive for the sacking and disqualification of “any player that we find is associated with it [lesbianism]”, FIFA wrote to the NFF demanding clarification and reiterating its stance against discrimination of all kinds.

By virtue of its affiliation with FIFA and its implicit agreement to abide by the body’s rules, the NFF is qualified for grants and financial assistance from the Zurich-based body, and so it was in the interest of the country’s top football brass to, at the very least, keep their discriminatory views in check.

That did not stop Seyi Akinwunmi, vice president of the NFF, from laying the blame for the Super Falcons’ failure to qualify for the women’s football event of the 2016 Olympic Games on the alleged presence of gay players within the squad.

“Lesbianism kills teams,” he claimed. A few months later, Nigeria claimed their ninth African crown.

“We [gay players] have decided to keep working hard and hopefully find clubs in Europe, because that is the only safe place to be yourself,” one player in the country’s top flight told Al Jazeera anonymously.

“There is a WhatsApp group where we all talk and share information. My parents are aware and unbothered that I am a lesbian but they are always worried about my safety in Nigeria. Whenever the team wins, it’s a great performance but when we lose, some of these coaches are quick to blame it on ‘dirty lesbians’ and ‘evil players’.”

Continental obstacle

Nigeria is not the only country in Africa with these attitudes toward women in sports. South African Football Association (SAFA) vice-president Ria Ledwaba stunned many back in 2005 when she lashed out at the country’s national women’s side, Banyana Banyana, saying the players “need to learn how to be ladies”.

That she was the chairperson of SAFA’s women’s committee at the time made the statement even more impolitic. Instead of seeking to dismantle the high pay disparity between women and men at the national team level – which President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed this week after the team won its maiden Women’s African Cup of Nations (WAFCON) title in Morocco – she was suggesting Banyana Banyana players needed to attend etiquette classes.

In 2008, South African footballer and queer activist Eudy Simelane was gang-raped and stabbed multiple times, leading to her death.

Lesbians in Zimbabwe are being subjected to “corrective rape” and severe violence by men trying to “cure” them of their sexual orientation, according to human rights group ActionAid.

In Ghana, lesbian footballers live in fear. Gay sex is already punishable in the West African nation with a prison term of three years. A bill proposed in 2021 seeks to increase jail terms to up to a decade and force some to undergo “conversion therapy”, where attempts are made to change people’s sexuality.

A scapegoat

In 2004, aged just 18, Cynthia Uwak made her international debut for Nigeria; her performance instantly announced her as a star to watch out for.

The attacker was a key part of the Super Falcons’ runs at the 2004 and 2006 WAFCON and was adjudged Africa’s best player by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 2006 and 2007. There was an unmistakable sense among pundits, industry insiders and fans that this was a player of truly historic potential.

However, as she turns 36 this July, she has gone close to 12 years since her last appearance for Nigeria.

After missing the 2010 WAFCON due to an injury, she was surprisingly dropped from the Super Falcons’ squad to the World Cup the following year. Aside from unsuccessful calls by members of the public to recall her to the national team in 2016, Uwak has simply vanished from the public eye.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, she said her exclusion from the national team was on account of her sexual preference. “Some of the best players were left out of the squad because they were practising lesbians,” she confirmed.“It was a long time ago, but it’s something I still remember because that was why I stopped playing in the national team.”

Former international Eucharia Uche, who was the Nigeria coach from January 2009 to October 2011, made headlines when she said homosexuality was a “dirty issue” while speaking to the New York Times on the eve of the 2011 World Cup.

While Uche claimed she did not witness overt lesbian expression, she nevertheless made it her business to address “strong rumours” to that effect through recourse to “divine intervention”.

Uwak said she was stunned by Uche’s remarks, calling them hypocritical, and claimed Uche was herself a closeted homosexual during her playing days.

“[Uche’s comments] actually swept me off my feet,” the former Olympique Lyon forward said. “Like, whoa! These are the people you looked up to and they were practising this same thing they condemned you about. They even dropped you. That is like trying to take food out of somebody’s mouth. That was what Uche Eucharia did.”

Uwak also said she was actively persecuted for her sexual identity.

“I never hid my identity,” Uwak said. “I had to stand my ground even though these people did that to me at a tender age. They kicked me out, tried to make me a scapegoat.”

‘No longer an issue’

Speaking to Al Jazeera 11 years on, Peters says he regrets his prior stance, one which was born out of a “Christian, cultural and performance point of view”. While his statements made him a pariah internationally and culminated in him losing his position of privilege within the structure of Nigerian football, he insists he arrived at his change of heart through re-education and a reappraisal of the world.

“I don’t share that point [of view] any longer,” he said. “ The world is a different place and we just have to live with it, work with it, and accommodate it. It’s no longer an issue.”

Uche, when contacted for a response to Uwak’s comments, declined to comment by insisting she “doesn’t want to join issues”. On his part, Akinwunmi claimed that his words were taken out of their intended context.

For Uwak, there is a lingering scepticism that there will ever be a true change of attitude toward lesbians in Africa, both in general and in football specifically.

“It will never happen in Africa because, everything, they term it witchcraft,” she said. “They want to pray and deliver a gay person, or they prefer you hide your sexuality. It would only change if people keep pushing.

“Don’t let society make you, and don’t live someone else’s life.”