PHOTO BLOG: Senegalese women battle sexism on football pitch

December 21, 2012

Streets, squares, parliament buildings and judicial courts have served as the stage for old and new struggles for women’s rights and gender equality.

But in Senegal, some smaller – yet equally important (and loud) – battles are being fought on sandy pitches across the West African nation where female teams gather to play football.

Here, as in much of the world, football is considered a sport mainly for men. Women players face discrimination and harassment as they try to follow their passion.

Ladies’ Turn is a non-profit organisation that supports Senegalese women’s enthusiasm for football. It organises tournaments for female teams and promotes gender equality through sport.

When French filmmaker Helene Harder learned about Ladies’ Turn, she was captivated by the energy and motivation of the players. Eventually she decided to make a documentary about their struggle to play football and their lives in strongly patriarchal Senegalese communities.

The movie – of the same name – won the awards for best feature film and audience’s favourite film at the London Feminist Film Festival earlier this month.

In a written interview with TrustLaw, Harder describes the making of the film, and reflects on the challenges and lasting impacts of the experience.

When I came across the first photographs of the tournament, taking place on the sandy pitch of the neighbourhood, I was struck by the energy and the cinematographic beauty of the pictures.


Despite the hesitations I had coming in as a French and white filmmaker, I agreed to support the project, and film the first tournament. The idea of producing a long-length documentary came later.

Within the desire of the women to play football lies a force of transgression that turns gender representation upside down and goes way beyond sport.


I wanted to represent the diversity of the players. I was captured by the complexity of their choices and practices, and by the affirmation of their will – always personal and courageous – to play football.

It was about portraying them differently, about putting pre-conceived ideas to the test to fight against them better, and to break down the barriers between worlds.

There were many difficulties, but not necessarily where we were expecting them – the lack of means for filming and the sacrifices this implied, the inability of the distributors to understand what was at stake.

The issue was also to find the right tone to show inequalities and discrimination – the sexism, the latent homophobia that hamper the development of female football in Senegal – without stigmatising a country, a society and a culture. The great welcome the film received in Senegal and Europe proves that we have avoided this pitfall.

(One of the greatest memories I have) is filming in Koumbal, a small village in the interior of the country. The heat was unbearable, preventing us almost from breathing, the football pitch felt like a white-hot oven.

The team played with incredible passion and the entire village was there to watch them in action. I felt so privileged to have met them. It was an incredible surprise and joy to see them win the 2011 tournament – it was the first time they left their village and went to Dakar.



I returned in 2012 to screen the movie, and more than 600 people came from neighbouring villages to watch the Koumbal team on the big screen. Their pride and joy was the most beautiful gift.

I believe that sport is one of the fields where gender discrimination is still systematic and institutionalised. But sport also provides a unique platform to observe how inequalities operate.

Sport is a fantastic empowerment tool. Beyond its physical aspect, it helps build self-confidence (and) team camaraderie.   

(Additional reporting and translation from French by Claudine Boeglin)

All photos by Helene Harder

Ladies’ Turn trailer


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