For more than 20 years, Saja Kamal had only one dream: playing football under the Saudi flag.
Women’s football still has mountains to climb to gain legitimacy against its male counterpart. Never mind! The best female players in the world have decided to start with the most insurmountable of them, the Mount Kilimanjaro! So, on June 24, 2017, just a year ago, the game was played at the highest altitude in the history of women’s… and men’s football! The 32 players, aged between 18 and 66 from more than 20 different countries, competed at a height of 5,729 meters on the highest mountain in Africa and under the expert eyes of FIFA-accredited women referees. This achievement, registered in the Guinness Book, erases the previous record set at 3,500 meters altitude in Switzerland in 2016 by male players only.
Gaining acceptance towards women’s football, a mountain to climb
Among these players and alongside other Arab countries’, such as Yasmeen Shabsough, Jordanian player or even Esraa Awad rated Egyptian best female player in 2010, Saja Kamal took part in the game. She is a young Saudi girl who doesn’t stop fighting to build up a national women’s football team in the Saudi Kingdom, which is so far a very closed state towards female practicing any sports.
In addition to this first high-altitude game organized to promote sports for girls and women around the world, Saja Kamal holds a second world record – the match played at the lowest altitude. The performance took place last April in the Jordanian Dead Sea and was organized by Equal Playing Field, the same NGO as the first performance on the flanks of Kilimanjaro.
— Equal Playing Field (@EPFinitiative) 18 juin 2017
A lifetime fight
Saja has a long history with football. She fell in love with the sport when she was 4. During her childhood, she only played in unofficial teams, sometimes even with no coach. Saja was however luckier than most of her counterparts since she grew up in a Saudi Aramco compound. She could freely develop her passion and improve her skills in a more permissive Westernized culture.
As a teenager, she left Saudi Arabia for Bahrain where she managed to join Arsenal football club’s local team and make her first stages as a right-forward. Then, she went to study in the United States and played for in the Northeastern University’s women teams, while successfully getting a master’s degree in Politics and Project Management.
A fight for equal rights
When she came back to her home country, she worked for Aramco for five years and tried to start her own team, which only survived two years. At that time, several initiatives of women’s football teams emerged in the country and spontaneously gathered for championships or events and eventually created a Saudi unofficial female football team. “We played the first-ever GCC tournament in 2003; we played against the Jordan national team, the Iraq national team, the Palestinian national team even,” said Saja Kamal to The National.
Today, as senior consultant at PwC Middle East based in Dubai, Saja Kamal takes advantage of her professional freedoms to stay in Riyadh. and work on making her dream of creating an official Saudi female football team come true. She is therefore involved in the Equal Playing Field actions, for equal pay between women and men athletes, better access to equipment, more clubs open to women and more attention and respect to be paid on their performances, especially in the media.