Why you should care
Because Rawda Alshreef’s defiance is a window into life in the Palestinian territories.
Driving down the bustling streets of downtown Hebron in the occupied West Bank, air conditioning blasting, we pull over to pick up Rawda Alshreef. A tiny 53-year-old clad in a race-car-red thobe (a dress-like robe), matching high heels and a baby-pink hijab, her energy immediately fills the car as she begins cracking jokes.
It is not until we arrive at the sports hall, where she changes into her black and red Adidas tracksuit, that she finally looks like the current and longest-reigning female table tennis champion in the Palestinian territories. “In tournaments, they always ask where is Rawda Alshreef?” she says, laughing. “If I’m there, they know that I will win. If I’m sick or miss a competition, then they have a chance.”
Being an athletic champion at 53, while also being a mother of five and grandmother of 10, is a pretty badass move anywhere in the world. But in Hebron, the largest and most socially conservative Palestinian city, it’s downright unprecedented. But a combination of circumstance, a patriarchal society and family drama has kept Alshreef from a global breakout so far.
Some men don’t let women go shopping, so can you imagine playing sports?
Since age 15, Alshreef has not missed an annual West Bank championship match. Holding the No. 1 ranking for 13 years, she has represented her country in multiple international competitions. This detail is the most important for Alshreef, as it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to travel in general and for women in conservative families to travel alone.
“There was a tournament in Morocco maybe 10 years ago,” her husband, Abdulrahman, 57, an Arabic teacher, remembers fondly. “They made a celebration around Hebron University for her. In social media posts and newspaper headlines, [they] always wrote something like: ‘Mother of five children wins first place!’”
Because she was having kids during her 20s, her prime athletic years, Alshreef never made a run to qualify for the Olympics. For other international competitions, Rawda’s older brother Radwan, head of the Palestine Table Tennis Federation, has repeatedly chosen other, younger women to travel to compete. “Her brother used to tell her, ‘Oh, you have a lot of young children, you should be taking care of them,’” Abdulrahman says.
Alshreef was passed over for tournaments in Lebanon in 2013 and Jordan in 2011, but her brother points out he did select her for other competitions. Radwan says he didn’t want to pick his sister every time because he wanted to give other women a chance with the federation’s limited resources, and he didn’t want to be accused of nepotism.
When she got married in her early 20s, Alshreef had one condition: “I will get married only if I can keep playing table tennis.” And not just table tennis but also any sport or activity. She refused to let marriage limit her freedom, which is often the case in her community. “The people consider [sports] as something silly for women to do because to them, women just belong in the home,” Alshreef explains in her usual quick-paced speech. “Some men don’t let women go shopping, so can you imagine playing sports?”
Alshreef doesn’t stay behind the scenes when she’s not wielding a paddle either. She is a cashier in a wedding dress store during the week, and a wedding photographer and DJ on the weekends.
According to Nibal Khalil, vice president of the Palestine Olympic Committee and an anthropologist at al-Quds University, Palestine’s family-oriented society and cultural traditions often play out in gendered constraints. Add a military occupation — complete with hundreds of checkpoints, a permit regime to cross over the 1967 armistice line with Israel, administrative detentions and so on — to an already restrictive patriarchal society, and you have a place where women are held back.
“The biggest challenge is occupation,” Khalil says. “We are struggling every day with the right to movement.” She points out that girls who live in villages but want to train in the city must pass through checkpoints, which means additional scrutiny of their activities. “By the end, the social structures [of Palestine] will get involved and say no.”
As a result, sports have not been a priority for the Palestinian people until recently. It wasn’t until the Oslo peace agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993 that Palestinians started competing in the Olympics.
For Palestinian women, priorities historically centered around marriage and family-building. “Nowadays, it’s education,” Khalil says, but even then, “once [a woman] is educated, the priority is to get married.” Although the lives of women vary from city to village to refugee camp, Khalil and Alshreef agree that in the end, it comes down to the individual family. In Alshreef’s case, she got lucky.
“The Alshreef family is known for playing [racket] sports, and in the club, we are famous for winning,” Rawda says. She started playing at a young age with her immediate family. Rawda and her twin brother, Rawdi — a table tennis champion on the men’s side — used to place a towel in the middle of their dining room table as a makeshift divider and repurposed books as paddles.
But even within her family, she had to clear a few hurdles. Confused as to why she would “waste her time chasing a little ball,” her father-in-law tried many times to get her to stop playing. When competing in Morocco in 2012, she missed the birth of her first grandchild, which created a bit of a family scandal.
With all this tension around her playing table tennis, from family members, the community and even within the sports club itself, Alshreef was forced to build herself independently. And she has done so not only with immense success but also with joy and confidence.
“I don’t care what people say,” she says with a shrug. “I just want to keep playing.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Rawda Alshreef
- What do you do when you’re not playing table tennis? I also play squash and do karate and aerobics.
- What’s your favorite flower? Red rose.
- What’s your favorite food? Traditional Palestinian food like stuffed zucchini and grape leaves, maqluba and stuffed chicken.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Being healthy and in good shape. Also my smartphone.
- Who’s your hero? My husband.
Read more: As a child, she fled from violence. Now her fists could bring her stardom.