For those of us with a warmth for the England shirt, we’re certainly hoping that, come Sunday, Gary Lineker’s famous quote doesn’t apply. He said, ‘Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.’
But, this is about more than just football (and a full time score where the likes of Beth Mead and Alessia Russo make sure that the Germans don’t take home the cup). The reason the Lionesses have already won, irrespective of the final goals outcome, is because this highly-anticipated spectacle of a final is not being played by 22 men. It’s 22 women.
This Sunday’s Euro final will be played out on a giant stage, with a massive amount of support that, for many years, has been reserved for the men’s game. BBC figures showed that around 11 million people watched the England women’s 4–0 victory over Sweden, and the final is expected to draw millions more.
Many of the greatest (male) stars of the modern game have been vocal in their praise for the team. Yet, only a generation ago, women were banned from playing football on Football Association (FA) pitches in England. The FA at the time stated that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.’ For too many women around the world, in too many contexts (certainly not just football), this is a familiar story. But, today, as millions of people strongly encourage Serena Wiegman’s talented team to play their hearts out (while millions of others do the same for Germany), they’ve successfully made Lineker’s off-the-cuff remark no longer an appropriate definition – even if Germany do end up winning.
Evening the score
It is only fair to add here that the German women have faced a similar battle – that they too have won. (Women’s football was banned there until 1970.) It’s an ongoing battle for respect and gender-equality, for value for women’s skills, support for their talent and for the freedom to have access to the same things that men do (and even, as the Americans have managed, to ensure that the womens’ football pay is equal to that of their male counterparts).
All of this makes a clearer path for more women and girls to join a field which has, traditionally, often been shut to them. With a set of role models to look up to and follow, and more social acceptance for young girls who would like to join the boys in football at school, it’s likely that more funding and opportunity will be created for girls in the sport. Also, the standard of coaching expected will be elevated, and the pool of talent available to supply future teams will be even wider and even more exciting.
We’re still talking about football and, in relative terms, it may not seem the most important place to see women on their way toward equality with men, but this is an image of every other arena where women have been forced unjustly to take a back seat. The Euros final is a hopeful indicator of how a society, flawed and with a long way to go, can try to make things right. It’s a slow-moving machine to change the underlying gender norms that can be so deeply ingrained. But even the jump in viewing figures from less than 2 million for the last women’s Euro final in 2009 (also England v Germany), to the number expected to watch this match, speaks hope for how things can change.
Everyone on the pitch
And this hope is key when we consider that harmful gender norms, if left to fester unchecked, can rob women of basic vital things like education, safety and a voice. Even as we celebrate the symptoms of positive steps in this football victory, unacceptable gender bias still heightens the risk of violence against women. It still results in a gender pay gap. And we still see women denied their right to live out the fullness of their God-given potential and thrive.
Tackling gender inequality and sexual and gender-based violence is central to Tearfund’s work around the world. One of the ways in which we do this is through an approach called Transforming Masculinities.
By helping communities relook at how they think about gender norms and equality through the lens of faith, they start to transform themselves. Women learn that they have value and that their voices are important. Men understand that women deserve to be treated with respect and to be safe from violence, and that the full participation of women at every level of decision-making – from within the home to governance – is vital to building a strong society. Relationships are restored and communities strengthened.
And as people, particularly leaders within the community, find new ways of thinking and begin to model behaviours that are contrary to what may have been acceptable before – entire communities begin to be transformed. With equality comes strength, safety and improved living standards to whole families.
Positions on the playing field
One of the places where Transforming Masculinites training has been a key pillar in the response to sexual violence is Myanmar, where Tearfund has worked with church leaders to provide training.
Even for many pastors, the notion of power imbalance within the church and how that affects women, especially survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, had never been seen as an issue. One church leader says he realised during the training: ‘We use lots of power in our church without noticing. It is also very harmful and violating.’
This is not unique to Myanmar. This is everywhere. We all have power, whatever our position or role in society, and it is our responsibility to use it to protect and build each other up. This is at the core of our faith as Romans 12:10 tells us to ‘Honour one another above yourselves.’ That’s all of the ‘one anothers’, not just the ones who look, live and sound like us.
Not the final whistle
Real, meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight and just because someone says it should (even if they are right). It happens when we are all involved, no matter where we are in the world. It happens when we are willing to rethink our perceptions, to constantly reevaluate why we do, say, or think certain things, and to test new ways of being. It requires listening to and allowing others to have value – even where the context we’ve grown up in has told us it’s acceptable (or even right) – to think and feel and behave a certain way. It involves the small battles – within ourselves, our families, our churches and our local communities – as well as the big ones. It involves each of us, every day.
The Lionesses’ big victory will not be if they can successfully lift the Euros cup on Sunday (although we do hope football’s coming home!), it will be if they can continue their rising success in recreating views on women’s place in sport – and in arenas traditionally preserved for men. It will be in the re-socialisation of the little girls and boys watching on TV who will see, enacted before them as they cheer on 22 women for 90 minutes, a glimpse of a world where women being valued well becomes a norm.