Women on the Field staff members Oyku Atilla and Seren Ayran (far left and far right) flank co-founders Melis Abacioglu and Kiraz Ocal.

With just a tiny fraction of the country’s women and girls involved in its most popular sport, the only way to go is up.

Professional women’s football has taken off in some countries thanks to bigger investment in the sport and wide media coverage of events like the 2019 Women’s World Cup. But female players still lag behind in many ways – see for instance the U.S. national team’s unresolved struggle for equal pay.

What of Turkey, a country where football is by far the most popular and lucrative sport – for men only? Judging from the media and sports participation rates, female footballers hardly exist here. Women make up a mere 0.94 percent of all registered football players in Turkey, according to a 2020 study.

Some steps, however small, have been made in recent years to alleviate this inequality.

Women’s Football in Turkey

Women’s participation in sports didn’t begin in Turkey until the first years of the Turkish Republic in the early 1920s, and even then, women were kept out of strength and endurance sports for fear this would adversely affect their fertility. A women’s football league was not set up until 1994, only to be canceled from 2003 to 2006 for lack of support. The league restarted in the 2006-2007 season. It got a big boost last season when Besiktas, one of Turkey’s most famous football clubs, invested heavily into its women’s team and the games started being broadcast on television.

The women’s national team played its first match in 1995. So far, the senior team has failed to qualify for a major international championship, and currently lies fourth in its qualifying group for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

One Small Step for Girls and Women

An organization founded less than a decade ago is working to better the grim prospects for women’s and girls’ football in Turkey. Kizlar Sahada (Women on the Field) not only introduces girls to a new sport, but also tries to break down prejudices about female players, empowering them in the long run. A sports and fitness entrepreneur, Melis Abacioglu, kicked things off with a girls’ tournament in 2013 and by the following year, the organization was up and running. Kiraz Ocal, a psychology graduate who had a career in the NGO sector, joined as a co-founder of Women on the Field in 2014. Since then, Ocal said, its programs have introduced thousands of women and girls to football.

“Melis saw that the sport was able to break down gender norms and empower women, and she organized the first Women on the Field tournament. At the same time, I had decided to work with football because I’d come to realize it was the most effective way of resolving some social problems I’d pondered for years,” Ocal said.

The 2020 study of women in sports – commissioned by Women on the Field and KASFAD, the Women’s Sports and Physical Activity Association – highlighted girls’ and women’s low participation rates in several sports, with football at the bottom of the list.

In its first half-decade, Women on the Field made some inroads into that situation, training hundreds of young women footballers and building a network of coaches, trainers in communications other skills, and volunteers.

Corporate partnerships have helped the organization expand across the country. Visa sponsors Women on the Field schools in seven provinces for young players from disadvantaged backgrounds aged between nine and 14. Almost a dozen clubs in the top three women’s football leagues cooperate in this project. The other main sponsor, Kotex, contributes to a personal and career development program for more experienced footballers. 

A screen grab from a promotional spot for Women on the Field’s recent Adidas-sponsored football giveaway in Istanbul.

These partnerships helped the program achieve measurable gains before the pandemic hit. In the first year of Visa’s sponsorship of the schools, 2019, more than 200 girls took part, and some 40 enrolled in sports high schools. Some of that cohort even got professional contracts.

Girls who are too young for these programs can attend football and social development camps in different provinces across the country.

Women on the Field also holds online events for female players of all ages. The COVID-19 pandemic gave the organization a real push to increase its online activities, starting with mentoring sessions with expert athletes as part of the Visa-sponsored schools. The organization also held personal and professional self-improvement seminars through the Kotex development program, which includes sessions on sports nutrition, sports psychology, and personal brand management.

“Our programs were entirely online during the pandemic. We want to start organizing tournaments again, to start new programs and reunite with the Women on the Field family,” Ocal said of their 2022 plans.

But for now, most activities are still being held online.

Now, just as before the pandemic, Women on the Field most often reaches prospective players through YouTubeFacebook, and other social media, and coaches and trainers spread news of the programs through word of mouth in their sports clubs, schools, or communities.

The organization now fields four full-time staff and more than 120 volunteers who run the schools and player development programs, football camps, and training programs.

Tearing Down Prejudice

Irem Kavasoglu – a research assistant in the sport sciences department at Cukurova University who volunteers in the Kotex-sponsored development program – said those who take part not only get fit, but also gain in terms of empathy and social development.

“All these girls’ and women’s empowerment, their dedication of their lives on and off the field to breaking gender roles – these are the most significant changes,” Kavasoglu said.

Rabia Kuruoglu, a graduate of the Visa football school in 2020, said she made the A team at her club, Medigun Zafer, thanks to the program. “I played football before Women on the Field, but I started playing with much greater conviction” after joining, she said.

Women on the Field is based not on individuals but on teamwork, said Mustafa Yildirim, a volunteer who instructs athletes in content and video editing and other communications skills.

“I’ve had the opportunity to not just work with female athletes who are often overlooked in our country, but also to help them reach milestones in their career,” he said. “The communications group and I sometimes worked all through the night. We thought about how we could make a bigger impact, and we always had fun at each meeting, even though some were online during the pandemic.

“I actively followed women’s football, especially the third league, even before I met up with Women on the Field, and I noticed the shortcomings. However, I didn’t have any idea about how to fix these gaps or improve the quality of the game. After I learned about Women on the Field, I wanted to become part of the team. I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I add something to the mix?’” Yildirim said.

Melisa Cansu Uzun is a coach for the city-sponsored, under-12 boys’ team in the southwestern city of Aydin. She said Women on the Field is making an impact on the positive developments seen in women’s football in recent years.

“I can see that there’s activity in women’s football right now. It’s a fact that a fuse needed to be lit, and Women on the Field were the ones to do that. Social media is a very effective platform these days; it really leads the efforts for girls in society,” Uzun said. She adds that the program is also a great resource for students training to become sports teachers.

Achievements and Accolades

To date Women on the Field has worked with more than 400 female players, around three dozen female coaches and corporate and other trainers, and 20 female referees, Ocal said. In all, several thousand women and girls have been exposed to the sport, whether by just attending a game, by playing in a tournament, or through other Women in the Field initiatives, she said.

Volunteer Mustafa Yildirim teaches communications skills to female athletes. Courtesy photo.

Women in the Field’s achievements have earned praise both at home and abroad. It was a finalist for best female football initiative award at the 2018 World Football Summit Industry Awards and won funding from the Turkish social innovation platform Imece in a contest for best gender-equality project. In 2019, the Turkish Olympics Committee recognized Women on the Field with its top award for fair play.

Partnerships with major global brands is another success factor. Visa’s support allowed Women on the Field to pay wages and buy equipment for coaches and students, while Kotex’s funding helped them support professional athletes and provide scholarships and internships. 

The organization is now collaborating with Adidas on an initiative to give footballs to 1,000 female players, starting with a November event hosted by Istanbul’s Besiktas district. With members of the Besiktas women’s team taking part, this was Women on the Field’s first in-person event since the easing of pandemic restrictions.

A Long Road Ahead

It’s easy to guess that combating social stigma is one of the biggest challenges girls face when playing football. Historically formed by men’s hold on the sport, such prejudices still hold back women’s sports. In one much-publicized illustration of this, well-known sports presenter Melih Sendil remarked in 2020 that football was a patriarchal sport and that women should stay out of it.

“Sometimes, the best solution is to leave a conversation with a person who’s not ready to hear us out. There have been partnerships we suspended because we decided to better utilize our time and energy,” Ocal said.

Women on the Field also struggles to reach top-level female athletes, Kavasoglu of Cukurova University said.

“I believe they have a shortcoming in accessing and including female athletes on the national A team or who have active careers. However, I’m not sure whether this is really a failure or just something that’s outside the scope of their project,” Kavasoglu said.

Social media could be used to reach many more girls and women and to organize Women on the Field branches in schools and neighborhoods, coach Merve Cansu Uzun noted.

“They’re doing everything they can, but they need our help to span across the country. I believe that Women on the Field will be somewhere different if we succeed in doing this,” she said.

Irem Sarikulak founded FemSport, a women-oriented sports journalism site. She holds a master’s degree from the department of sports sciences and technology at Hacettepe University.

Translated by Azra Ceylan.