Rewriting the rulebook: how Sanaa is changing the face of football refereeing


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Each year, De Montfort University Leicester’s (DMU) FIFA Master International MA in Management, Law and Humanities of Sport attracts talented students looking to progress in sports management and leadership. Over the years, many famous sports stars have taken the course and future sports leaders have been discovered. Here, we begin a series of features profiling some of this year’s intake.

You need to have guts and a backbone to be a football referee because you can’t please all of the people all of the time. In fact, you can’t please many of the people any of the time.

So, imagine being the first ever female Arab Muslim to officiate a match in the Israeli football league.

That was the challenge for Sanaa Darawsha, one of the new recruits to the prestigious FIFA Masters  course in Management, Law and the Humanities at De Montfort University.

Sanaa Darawsha

It is difficult enough being a female referee in a sport that sadly remains a stronghold for male-domination and outdated prejudices.

But as an Arab and a Muslim in Israel, Sanaa faced abuse from both sides of the cultural divide. Her brother did not talk to her for a year – even though they lived in the same house –  because of the way she had to dress for football.

The vitriol she was met with at one match involving a Jewish team saw her need a police escort out of the stadium to make sure she got home safely.

But it is these experiences which Sanaa said made her stronger and now she hopes her FIFA Masters degree will give her the knowledge to promote women in sport back in her country.

She said: “The first reactions in 2010 when I took the job as a football league referee was ‘you are female what are you doing here?’ Some men made it quite clear that they thought they knew more than me.

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“Then as I made decisions in matches they realised that I was good and they started to respect me. But it took about 100 games for that to happen.”

Sanaa was born and raised in Israel. She is one of two million Arabs living in the country but she says: “I think most people around the world do not know we exist.

“I am always classed as an Arab,” she explained. “I am a lesser person. It does not matter how much I work and how much effort I put in I will never be something like a CEO.

“But I believe that through sport I can achieve anything. If we can work together as a community we can reach our goals in life.

“If I stayed in Israel I would not be able to achieve as much. With the FIFA Masters, and the experience it gives me, I want to come back to Israel and empower women in sport.”

Student Group four

Sanaa’s gritty determination eventually saw her take up a position in the Israeli Schools Sports Association – the first Arab to hold such a role in its 50-year history.

She is determined to see her community flourish through sport.

“Where I live there are no parks and no green spaces. If we work together as a community we can change that and achieve our goals. We can become athletes, we can manage our own projects. We do not need to keep on relying on anyone else.

“I must remain positive and believe in what I can achieve. If not, it will affect my community.

“I have a mentor and he wants to empower women like me. He believes through empowering women we can make a difference.

“When I received that police escort I wanted to stop everything. But then I told myself I had to keep going and prove I can do it.

“Now there are 10 more female referees and one of them is working in the top division. I helped her do that. If we help each other we can all make it.”

Posted on Tuesday 24th September 2019

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