Playing Gender, Religion, and Ethnicity: Girls’ Football and Public Playgrounds in the Schilderswijk, The Hague, the Netherlands

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


In the Netherlands, there is an enormous increase in girls’ participation in football, both in official clubs and in other, more ‘unorganised’ sports spaces such as playgrounds and football courts, especially amongst girls with migrant and Muslim backgrounds. Girls’ increasing football participation challenges the dominant idea of football as a men’s sport. Furthermore, Muslim girls’ football participation plays against the backdrop of an increased problematisation of the presence of Muslim citizens in Dutch public spaces. However, in current feminist and anthropological studies, leisure and sports are not central topics. This dissertation discusses how power and difference, converged through gender, ethnicity, and religion, play out in girls’ football and in public playgrounds in a Dutch neighbourhood, and how girls challenge these power structures and inequalities by playing football. The ethnographic research took place in public playgrounds in the Netherlands, mostly in the Schilderswijk in The Hague with a self-organised girls’ football competition. Theoretically, I argue that conceptualisations of religion and Islam in feminist intersectionality scholarship, in studies of religious women’s agency, and in studies of Muslim women and sport do not correspond to the anthropological lived realities that are at the core of this dissertation. These studies either look at Islam as a form of racialisation and as embedded in macrostructures of power, or at Islam through the eyes of pious women in explicitly religious spaces. As such, they fail to understand religious difference and Islam within spaces and bodies that are not always explicitly or primarily religious, as is the case with the football girls in my research. First, I show that despite a growing participation of girls in football, public football playgrounds are still dominantly constructed as masculine. Furthermore, the gendered construction of the playground intersects with racialised constructions of public sports space, and with implicit secular norms of public space in the Netherlands. In particular, sports and neighbourhood organisations reproduce the masculine, secular, and white norm of public football spaces, even if they aim to increase Muslim girls’ participation in their football activities. Second, I show that girls’ motivations to play in a specific girls’ football competition are related to the masculine norm and the dichotomous gendered and (hetero)sexualised organisation of sports. Contrary to what is popularly believed, Muslim girls’ motivations to play in a girls’ football competition are not primarily related to religious beliefs and backgrounds. I argue that girls’ spatial football practices are much more layered and nuanced than a simple rigid and fixed segregation, which is an important addition to and critique on existing literature, in which Muslim girls’ football is approached only as a strictly gender-segregated practice. Third, I discuss how girls’ football intersects with discourses of integration, emancipation, and citizenship in neighbourhood and youth sports policies. The central argument is that a paradox of gender, Islam, and girls’ football exists in Dutch culturalised citizenship: Muslim girls are expected to participate in playing football for their cultural integration and emancipation, yet, even when they do so, they are not seen as full citizens because they are always already constructed as the essential religious ‘other’. I argue that playing football forms an important practice through which culturalised citizenship can be challenged by football girls. Finally, I argue that a conceptualisation of religion and Islam should attend to the experiences of Muslim girls not only from a religious point of view, but also by taking into account practices that are not explicitly religious, such as playing football in public football playgrounds. By playing football, Muslim girls in the public playgrounds in the Schilderswijk also performatively play with the categories of gender, ethnicity, and religion.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Robben, Ton, Primary supervisor
  • Prange, M.S., Supervisor, External person
  • Oosterbaan, Martijn, Co-supervisor
Award date17 Apr 2019
Place of PublicationUtrecht
Print ISBNs978-90-393-7117-6
Publication statusPublished - 17 Apr 2019


  • girls’ football
  • the Netherlands
  • public space
  • gender
  • religion
  • Islam
  • ethnicity
  • Moroccan-Dutch
  • citizenship
  • sport


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