By Zach Theiler
For two-years I lived in the mountains of Syunik province, Armenia. Every day I woke up to clouds rolling over the green hills that lay before the Nagorno-Karabakh mountains. The mist breaking against the base of the mountains reminded me of the rising tide of the sea gently creeping up the shore. “Cloud City” I would describe the village to my friends and family back in the United States. This rural village of 1,500 people could ever be called a city, or draw any comparisons to Star Wars; the setting was more similar to Tolkien’s Shire than anything from science fiction. However at times the clouds would encase the village in thick fog where you could only see a few feat ahead of yourself. I would even occasionally get lost while walking home. But when the clouds cleared it was natural to want to take advantage of the sunshine. And for most of the village children, this meant playing soccer.
Having played soccer my entire life I couldn’t resist the urge to rush to the field for a pick-up game with the local kids. Teenagers dominated the pitch, picked teams, and made the rules. The younger ones felt lucky to be included and frantically swarmed the ball hoping to contribute. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working at the local school, I knew most of the kids by name. They were my students. Although I was 25 years old at the time I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement and feel like I was 12 years old again while we played. Yet, despite the fun, I noticed a common trend at the games: the girls watched from the side lines and weren’t enjoying the innocence and freedom of being a little kid on a soccer pitch.
“Why aren’t you playing?” I would often ask the girls. I would get one reason or another, “My brother doesn’t want me to” was common, as was, “I have too many chores.” Sometimes I could sense some amount of discomfort from the girls I urged on to play. In my naivety as a foreign man I couldn’t discern why they “wouldn’t want” to play. I was only just then starting to grasp the depth of gender roles in a traditional society, where girls are taught to be women from a very young age, sometimes as young as 5 or 6 years old. And being an Armenian woman did not mean playing soccer. It meant helping mothers clean and cook at home. It meant taking care of the younger children at the house. It meant being the best possible student in their grade. It meant being the most beautiful girl in the class. It meant being a living embodiment of moral values. It meant learning to handle a lot of life pressure in order to attract a suitable husband. That was what it meant to be a little girl in this village. Being a carefree kid was not part of the plan.
And on I went with the boys of the school, pretending I was 12 years old again without a care in the world. I was reminded of my childhood. As an American boy growing up in a middle-class family in Idaho I had very little stresses in my life as a child. I could play and live in protected isolation from the difficulties of being an adult. That would come later. I cherish those simple and formative years where I made lifelong bonds with my friends and learned what it meant to have fun. Playing taught me to be a good friend, to follow the rules, to use my imagination, to be an athlete and work in a team. But for these Armenian girls, that sense of play is more limited than I could imagine. Who cares what their brothers think, I would often think to myself, unaware of the traditions that had been deeply engrained in boys and girls that stopped girls from even believing they could run onto the soccer pitch.
Village life is challenging for all people, boys and girls. Boys are often pressured in other ways, especially when they are older and expected to be breadwinners and are required to serve in the military. But as children, I struggled knowing that the boys could play soccer and were allowed to forget, at least for a moment, the difficulties of life while the girls were often expected to behave as adults with all of the encompassing pressures.
For two years I tried to establish a girls’ soccer team in this village. I watched Manchester United games with my host sister every week. I knew she would want to play. She was a fearless young woman much like her mother, and I knew she had the courage to take on a leadership position and try to organize girls into playing sport. It was difficult to get the pitch for just the girls. It needed to be a safe space for them to play soccer. Every week we tried to gather up as many girls as we could to play soccer. Eventually we managed to get a few dedicated and courageous girls to break the stereotypes and play football. Sometimes the parents of their families would stop them if they believed it got in the way of their studies. Sometimes the girls were allowed because they were kids, and their parents planned on stopping them from playing sport once they were older. Sometimes the girls were there out of curiosity and soon lost interest in the sport.
After six months of recruitment and weekly practices we had a group of five or six regulars. However, one day then I learned, while I was away from the village, that my host sister, the team captain, broke her leg playing soccer in the street. Although we eventually made sure she had a full recovery, the team fell apart. The negative stereotypes regarding women playing sports were intensified. Working on challenging gender roles in traditional communities is a sensitive subject, and often making progress is marked by steps backwards.
It was a tough pill to swallow; I loved this village, and I wanted the best for all the students within whom I worked. GOALS continued to grow and expand, and the regional league centred in Goris gained more and more momentum. By 2017 ten different communities were competing in the league, with participating villages driving to Goris to play in the region’s first youth woman’s football league. Yet all the while I felt sad that the village I lived in was not among them. But I also knew that it wasn’t the place of a foreigner to push the girls or the village to join; ultimately the motivation had to come from them. The villages that had joined the league did so on their own accord with passionate local football coaches driving forward the program. I hoped that one day my village would do the same.
Now, in 2019 I am far away from the village. I live in Dublin, Ireland, and Armenia feels like a distant and beautiful dream. Sometimes I dream in Armenian, and I am drifting through the rural foothills of Syunik, meeting with villagers who are vaguely reminiscent of my host family and friends. I know that part of me never left Armenia, and I just keep waiting for an opportunity to go back to the place that will always be in my heart, a place that part of my soul will always call my home. All the while I continue to hear about the progress of girls football in Armenia, with more and more villages deciding to break the stereotypes.
So much has changed in the two years that I have been away from Armenia. My village, after three years of watching neighbouring villages participate in the Syunik GOALS League, has started a GOALS team driven by a local coach who wants to make a difference for the girls in the community. Looking at the photo of the team for the first time this last Spring I recognized many of the girls from my teaching days, but unfortunately my host sister was not among them. Her experience may have paved the way for other girls to believe they can break stereotypes, and the tragedy of her broken leg resounds even stronger as the girls had to overcome more to get where they are. Now those girls can maybe forget of greater life responsibilities for an hour or two a week, and get lost in the joy and innocence of playing soccer like a kids they are.