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Somaliland said on Thursday it had canceled its first women’s football tournament as it fell foul of Islamic values, sparking outrage among women’s rights groups.

The Somaliland Women’s Football Tournament, featuring six female teams representing Somaliland’s six divisions, was expected to begin on Thursday in the capital Hargeisa.

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But Abdirashid Aidid, director of sports at the ministry of youth and sports, said authorities had opted to can the seven-day event as it was un-Islamic.

“We canceled it because it is not in line with Islamic values and norms,” Aidid told a news conference.

“After public anger, including from the sheikhs, we agreed to suspend it. Everyone saw our women playing during the training sessions on TV and social media platforms. We don’t want that at all.”

Amoun Adan – an athlete, women’s rights advocate, and businesswoman – who organized the tournament, said authorities had first given her the go-ahead earlier this month.

They were later swayed by complaints from religious leaders after pictures were broadcast of the player’s training, she said, adding that all had been appropriately dressed.

“Such a decision is a denial of our rights as women. We didn’t do a sinful thing. What we did in the training is not something new. Women were fully covered,” Adan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

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Adan is co-founder of Ubah Inspire and Fitness Center in Hargeisa, a health and recreation center that aims to empower women and girls through physical exercise.

She said Somaliland was an outrider in the Muslim world.

“Women’s football tournaments happen in other Muslim countries. I encourage the government to reconsider so that women can play sports and enjoy their rights freely.”

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The cancellation of the tournament prompted swift criticism from women’s rights campaigners on social media.

“The government’s decision to ban the Somaliland national women’s football tournament is a clear reflection of the government’s position towards women,” tweeted Maria Gaheir from the Center for Policy Analysis in the Horn of Africa.

“It is also a result of the lack of women’s representation in the government, who can speak and express the woman’s stance on issues like these”.

https://twitter.com/MariaGaheir/status/1339487163604451328

Saudi Arabia launched a women’s football league in November, two years after women were first allowed to watch football matches in stadiums in the Gulf kingdom.

In 2019, Iran also lifted a ban on women watching football matches, after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial stadium restrictions.

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