Basketball a Bridge for Women in Iraq

Speakers L- R: Sana Ghazi and Ryan Bubalo

MUMBAI and NEW DELHI, March 21-22, 2013- Asia Society India presented the India Premiere of Salaam Dunk, a film about the first women’s basketball team at the American University in Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), exploring how, through sport, students are able to understand and overcome problems from ethnic divides to the stereoptyping of women, providing a view of Iraq along the way. We were joined in Mumbai by Sana Ghazi, Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, and (via videoconference) Ryan Bubalo, founder and coach of the AUIS basketball team, and in New Delhi by Indrani Bagchi, Diplomatic Editor of the Times of India.

Ghazi remarked on the bravery of the women featured in the film, noting that the fact that last names of women were not used was a reminder of the security issues faced by them in Iraq.

Bubalo commented that security in Iraq was not as large an issue for them, relatively speaking, because AUIS is located in a comparatively peaceful region of Northern Iraq. He spoke about the absence of opportunities to take forward basketball in the students’ lives, sharing that they even had to compete in a tournament where there were no age groups because there are not enough women's teams to be segregated into age categories. More important, he said, was that the women became more independent and confident after their experiences of the game- many of the recently graduated players are now looking for leadership roles in other walks of life. "The experience of being leaders has already had a large impact on their lives," said Bubalo.

Responding the comments about American involvement and perceptions in Iraq, Bubalo explained that the situation there is much more complex than we think. He confessed that despite having lived there for two years, he is still not sure how he feels about the situation. He had expected all Iraqis to be heavily anti-American, but was surprised to find that the Iraqis were divided on the issue of American occupation.

Bubalo went on to speak about the difficulty of coaching an all-women's team, because according to him the team would have benefitted from a woman coach. "It would have made it easier. A lot more families would have been open to the idea of their daughters joining the team. I had a female assistant but unfortunately she didn't understand the game, but she was great at connecting with the girls on matters that I couldn't relate to."

Bubalo shared that he had learned more from the girls than they had from him. He said that most of the girls had already been through life-threatening situations that would astound westerners. He added that these ordeals were something he had never had to experience, but it was what gave him 'an incredible respect for humanity' and made him optimistic, especially learning that the younger generation has a powerful capacity to accept people the way they are.

Kiran Negi from U.N. Women observed that the space that the girls in the team came from is similar to that of Indian girls. "Sports creates a platform to bring together people of all kinds- sports is a great equalizer. When girls play a sport, they are looked at in a different light by the men in their families."

Reported by Anuja Sheth, Intern, Asia Society India Centre.

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