In a country where women still lack control over some basic elements of their own lives and seldom occupy positions of power in politics or industry, Fifa’s decision to place female officials in charge of matches at this World Cup is both significant and laced with hypocrisy.
For the first time in the history of the men’s tournament, football’s world governing body have included female referees among their 129-strong list of officials, a move that while undoubtedly positive — as with so many aspects of this World Cup — casts the choice of Qatar as host into grim focus.
In July this year, the World Economic Forum ranked Qatar 137th out of 146 nations they assessed in their annual Global Gender Gap Report. Its women’s national team have been removed from Fifa’s world rankings, such is the rarity with which they play official fixtures, and aspects of Qatari culture remain severely oppressive towards women, who must seek permission from male guardians over major life decisions such as marriage, career progression and, in some instances, travelling abroad.
The presence of female referees, then, appears unlikely to leave much of a lasting, local legacy, but could yet prove a more powerful showcase for the rest of the world.
“This is a huge moment in women’s refereeing,” Joanna Stimpson, the FA’s national women’s refereeing manager, told Standard Sport. “It’s a breakthrough in gender equality, not just in refereeing, but in football. It shows we’re not looking at match officials now based on gender but on ability and how they can operate at the highest level of the game.
“We always default about the saying ‘you need to see it to believe it’, and that’s exactly what’s happening now. Young girls can see there are pathways being formed throughout the men’s and women’s game, and that gives them that inspiration and motivation to go on and achieve.”
In all, there are six women set to be involved as officials in this tournament, three of them as on-field referees. Stephanie Frappart, referee for the most recent Women’s World Cup Final, will be the most familiar to English fans, having taken charge of several Champions League matches, as well as the 2019 Uefa Super Cup between Chelsea and Liverpool.
Yoshimi Yamashita, of Japan, has been a similar trailblazer in Asia and refereed at last year’s Olympic Games in her homeland, while Rwanda’s Salima Mukansanga has already
made history this year as the first woman to referee at the men’s Africa Cup of Nations. Each has had to pass the same physical tests and meet the same standards as their male counterparts but, says Kathryn Nesbitt, one of three assistants here, they remain braced for more intense scrutiny.
“If a mistake is made, there will be more attention on it,” the American told the LA Times. “The thought process has always been ‘you can’t mess up’, which is kind of scary. We’re human, and we’re going to make mistakes. But the women that have come this far have been dealing with that pressure for years.”