Blog: A football revolution for Tibetan women

Sonam Sangmo from Tibet Women's Soccer
Sonam Sangmo - Photo Credit to Pardeep Singh Gill Photography & Wild Yak Studio via Humans of Dharamsala

9th June 2016
Guest post by Cassie Childers

As the Tibetan political situation remains at a stalemate, a new wave of protest quietly builds strength. This movement is led not by politicians or NGOs. It is led by young Tibetan women, some as young as 13, who traditionally took little or no part in more conventional efforts to work towards freedom in Tibet. They protest not with documents and signs, not with handshakes, not with backroom deals or pleas to powerful people. All these young revolutionaries need is a football.

Tibet Women’s Football’s original purpose was to provide an arena in which they could develop skills of empowerment, communication, leadership, teambuilding and gender study. In 2011, when it all started, the simple act of walking onto the pitch with a ball was revolutionary. In the beginning, some of the young school girls were afraid to even touch the ball and were visibly hunched over with insecurity when they were playing. During that first month-long camp, though, a complete transformation occurred - and faster than anyone ever dreamed was possible. The girls went from being afraid to speak or express the simplest of opinions, to holding their heads up high, with confidence and determination to work towards a beautiful future for themselves and their country.

 The girls went from being afraid to speak or express the simplest of opinions, to holding their heads up high, with confidence and determination to work towards a beautiful future for themselves and their country.

Those same girls, the pioneers of women’s sport for Tibet, had their first match in a stadium filled with 8,000 of their country mates, most of whom were laughing at the thought of girls playing football. Everything changed after the first goal was scored by captain Lhamo Kyi, who ran into the middle of the pitch and did a celebratory cartwheel after driving the ball into the net. At that moment, you could feel the entire gender paradigm of the Tibetan community slightly shift and from there it just snowballed.

The Tibet womens football team
The Tibet womens football team during a game
The Tibet womens football team

Last summer, after several years of training and expansion, seven senior players were selected to travel to Germany to participate in the Discover Football Festival, mingling with other players like themselves from all over the world, players who have broken through gender barriers using football as their tool. These seven women became the first Tibetan women to ever represent Tibet abroad in a sporting event.

In the days leading up to the journey, the players huddled together in a hotel room in Delhi, discussing what to do when they met the Chinese team that would also be attending the tournament. The debate was heated. Should they show their anger and frustration to these Chinese players? Should they ignore them? Or should they reach out in a different way?

These seven women became the first Tibetan women to ever represent Tibet abroad in a sporting event.

The world has a long history of sports diplomacy. Going all the way back to the ancient Olympic Games, when warring city states reached peace by competing in the arenas instead of the battlefields, political grievances have been influenced by and even solved by acts of sport. During the 1936 Olympic Games, African-American runner Jesse Owens made a huge statement to Adolf Hitler and the world that people of any color could excel. Following the end of apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela used the national rugby team to reunite the country. After decades of severed diplomatic ties between China and the United States, American ping pong players reopened the lines of communication when they traveled to China to compete, directly leading to President Nixon’s visit shortly after.

Could sports diplomacy be used to help the Tibetan political situation too? There in that hotel room in Delhi, the players of Tibet Women’s Football decided it could.

Several days later, in a parking lot in Berlin, Germany, the team watched as a van pulled up filled with Chinese sportswomen. Without uttering a word, these brave young Tibetans jumped up and ran, arms outstretched, toward the van. The Chinese team looked utterly shocked. Tibet Women’s Football had managed to keep it a secret that they were attending the tournament and the Chinese had no idea that a Tibetan team would be there. The Tibetan players immediately embraced their Chinese counterparts, kissing them and saying a few words they remembered in Chinese. Onlookers who understood the gravity of this moment had tears in their eyes. These were the first Tibetan athletes, of any sex, to meet Chinese athletes post-invasion.

That moment in the parking lot led to a week of sharing stories, building friendships and the beginnings of mutual understanding and respect between the people of two countries. After the success in Berlin, Tibet Women’s Football is more determined than ever to continue their mission to empower young Tibetan women and provide them with an opportunity to represent their country as sports diplomats all over the world. Maybe, just maybe, a girls’ football team could be an answer for the troubling question of Tibet.

Tibet Women’s Football held their annual summer training camp in Clement Town, Dehradun, northern India, in April.  It was followed by matches against Indian teams in Goa in May. To date, 18 girls’ club teams have been established in Tibetan settlements around India and Nepal, with plans to continue to expand.

The BBC World Service recently ran a programme on Tibet Women's Football called Soccer Nuns which won a Human Rights Press Award.

Humans of Dharamsala recently interviewed striker Sonam Sangmo and provided us with our cover image (Photo credit: Pardeep Singh Gill Photography / Wild Yak Studio). 

You can learn more about Tibet Women’s Football at tibetwomenssoccer.org or on their Facebook page.

About the author: Cassie Childers serves as Executive Director of the exile-based nonprofit Tibet Women's Football. She believes in the power of Tibetan women to determine their own futures and the future of their homeland, and sees football as the perfect tool to cultivate that awareness. Cassie splits her time between India and her native New Jersey.