Find out how this UAE resident is tackling gender stereotypes
Jos Dirkx, the founder of nonprofit Girls & Football SA, believes that sports can create an equal playing field for boys and girls - something she addresses in her newly-launched book Tackled
"You throw like a girl," begins Jos Dirkx. The line comes from her second TEDx Talk, in which she narrates a childhood story of how a student had shouted that very statement at a classmate while playing softball. Jos, in fourth grade at the time, thought that sounded pretty great.
"Nice. That is awesome," she recalled thinking. "Throwing like a girl. That is a job well done."
It was only later that she would realise the phrase was meant as an insult. "It was not my earliest or hardest lesson in gender stereotyping. But it was a good one," she says.
Originally from the Netherlands and born to parents who were both diplomats, Jos spent much of her childhood travelling, and grew up in 12 different countries. It meant she was no stranger to making friends across borders. Also that she developed interests that were quite varied - from theatre and dance to football.
"When I was about 10 or 11, we were living in Senegal in West Africa and my best friend at the time was an American girl named Caity," Jos explains during a recent interview. "Caity was an amazing football player and would play the game during break. I remember the boys telling us we couldn't play one day - and it was enough for us to want to play every recess. We just didn't want them to tell us what we could and couldn't do. From that point on, in addition to the fact that football is the most important sport on the African continent, I felt very strongly about its potential to change the lives of people across the globe."
It was also partly the inspiration for Girls & Football SA, an NGO that attempts to promote equality for girls in South Africa on the field. It all started when Jos moved to the country at the age of 22, as part of her Masters in Global Political Economy at the Peace Research Institute in Olso, Norway. In 2010, South Africa was chosen as the host nation for the FIFA World Cup, which saw a lot of attention going to male players in the region. At the same time, there was hardly any information on female footballers - despite South Africa having a national female football team - something Jos didn't agree with. Which is why she decided to raise awareness on the importance of women and sports - and Girls & Football SA was born.
Since then, the NGO has produced a documentary on the South African national women's football team, contributed to research for various educational institutions and publications and received a letter from former American First Lady Michelle Obama celebrating their efforts.
It has been a long and fulfilling journey, and Jos is only getting started. The frequent traveller moved to the UAE four years ago to better understand the region and it was in Dubai that she set up her brand consultancy and marketing business. "I enjoy telling culturally relevant stories and helping brands come into new markets," explains Jos, when asked how her interest in society and gender studies led her to brand development.
This year also saw her release Tackled, a 'practical, conceptual book about working with young men to decrease gender-based violence', which launched in the UAE on September 13. Brimming with stories and statistics, it is a labour of love, with inputs from an additional three women across the globe - Dewi Spijkerman, a researcher with Oxford University, Fran Denton, who worked in South Africa at the time but currently resides in Germany, and Disha Sethi, who studies community and health issues in India. The work from this global team was published in the UAE by The Dreamwork Collective, founded by UAE-based Kira Jean.
Sports & learning
There are a lot of topics addressed in Tackled, but if you're wondering exactly how sports and gender issues connect, one has to go back to the basics. In one of her TEDx talks, Jos speaks about how language used around children can affect them.
"For a long time - until kids reach the age of five or six or seven - they still believe their abilities are equal," she explains. "Then, there is a shift, in part because we treat young people differently by telling them how they need to act. We talk to little girls about how pretty and cute they are and offer them dolls. We tell little boys how smart they are and ask them what they want to be when they grow up. That shapes their understanding of the various roles boys and girls play in society."
Which means that adults can inadvertently be discouraging boys from activities they may deem feminine, like ballet, and girls from activities that seem masculine - like football. And that can be a problem, says Jos.
"If a boy says he doesn't want to play rugby, but wants to dance, we must encourage him to do so," she says. "At the same time, girls can benefit a lot from sports like football. It provides them with both emotional and physical development and gives them the opportunity to be a team leader or part of a team. It allows them to build confidence, stronger body management, self-esteem, and awareness of their emotions and surroundings. Research shows that women who take part in sports tend to become stronger leaders, have more authority in the workplace and have more ownership over when they want to have children."
Finding role models
Since the inception of Girls & Football SA, Jos has seen a shift in the perception of female players in South Africa, though she believes there is room for improvement. While conducting workshops and training sessions, she realised that a lot of girls believed that they shouldn't play football because their parents, families or friends would judge them, or they would be ostracised by society.
A lot of this can boil down to the way the media portrays female athletes, says Jos. "A lot of the time, women in sport - like tennis - are portrayed as attractive. And obviously, that's not okay because men are not judged the same way. On the other hand, the media does not cover women's sports as much as it covers men's. We aspire to be what we see. And if we don't see any strong women taking to the field, we may not feel like it is something we can do too."
To get more girls interested in sport, Girls & Football SA has held workshops so the girls got to spend time and train with women from Banyana Banyana, South Africa women's national football team. "You could see the change in their faces when they saw those women in their uniforms. It was amazing. I believe we can replicate a similar event in the UAE."
Getting boys and men into the conversation
In 2014, Emma Watson gave a speech about the newly launched #HeForShe campaign, which encourages more men to be a part of the dialogue on gender issues. Jos believes we
can take it one step further, and look at #HeAndShe or #SheAndHe, or ideally, #Us. This is because men are an important part of the equation, since gender equality affects them too. Which is why, though Tackled is about sports and stereotypes, it attempts to understand this through the mindset of boys and young men. It does this through data collected from surveys of nearly 800 boys, as well as other qualitative research.
"In Tackled, boys tell stories of violence and how they have been affected by it. They are not all innocent - a lot have admitted that they've done something wrong, and wished they had the education to have done otherwise. I feel it's also related to the way society expects them to behave," says Jos.
Getting boys more involved with football or another sports could change their lives and reduce violence, believes Jos. It could be because it gives them the support of a team or a platform to let go of aggression. It could be because it is easier to talk about difficult topics once a certain level of trust and comfort has been established on the field. Or they might find a mentor and friend in their coach or teammates. "Lastly, by encouraging men to see a woman playing football, they can see that she is incredibly capable - and see her as their equal," says Jos. "And when you see someone as an equal, it becomes harder to violate them. That makes all the difference."