The UK-based charity aims to give Palestinian girls an outlet for creative expression even in the toughest of circumstances.
Written by Paula Viidu
Photo: Loic Laforge
Say hello to Basma. She’s eleven years old and lives an ordinary life: she goes to school, loves pizza and hangs out with her family. She lives in a small, conservative Palestinian town called Asira Al-Shamaliya, situated in Israeli-Occupied West Bank… and oh yeah, she rips on a skateboard. In fact, at eleven years old, Basma is Palestine’s most progressive female skater. Erm… what?
In some ways, Basma’s story with skating starts with SkatePal: a UK-based charity aiming to spread the love of skateboarding through building skateparks, providing equipment and giving lessons to kids like Basma. Although traditional sporting facilities in the West Bank are limited (compared to Israel, where most Palestinians are not allowed to cross the border to visit), the local skate scene is growing rapidly, and this is largely thanks to SkatePal.
Photo: Paula Viidu
Some might wonder, why encourage skateboarding in Palestine, rather than helping out with food or aid? SkatePal founder Charlie Davis has his own take on things. “I think people often underestimate the power of play, the power of having a childhood, and the power of enjoyment that sports like skateboarding can give a person,” he says. “The skate community is amazing and skateboarding is much more than just a sport. You’re challenging yourself, you’re skating with guys and girls of different ages, and it’s not about who’s the best.”
With skateboarding being in its infancy there, one of SkatePal’s main goals is to strive towards a situation where girls, like Basma, start to skate at a young age so that equality in the sport can be achieved. At the moment, there are about 10-15 girls who come to the skatepark in Asira on a regular basis. That makes up about 30% of the local skate population—which is one of the highest rates for female participation in sports in Palestine.
Despite this upwards momentum for girls skateboarding in Palestine, there are still some barriers SkatePal needs to address if they want to continue bringing skateboarding to girls in Palestine. Even though women’s rights in Palestine have been on a slow rise the past 20-30 years, according to local customs, it’s still inappropriate for unmarried men and women to have any physical contact. That makes it tricky for male volunteers to teach girls to skateboard—which is part of the reason SkatePal is keen to invite more female skaters to come and teach the girls in Palestine. “We’d love to reach a stage where we have an even split between male and female volunteers,” notes Charlie.
Plus, SkatePal firmly believes that having more female sporting role models in Palestine for young girls to look up to will ultimately help normalise sporting equality. For example, prior to competing in the Olympic games in 2016, runner Woroud Sawalha – one of the few female athletes to ever represent Palestine in the Olympics – told CNN that it meant a lot to her to represent Palestine as a female. “Maybe the perspective on girls practicing sports will change, so girls feel inspired to practice more professionally and freely in front of people,” she says.
SkatePal’s goal reaches beyond addressing the gender disparity in skateboarding, though: it’s also about providing the new generation of Palestinian kids with an outlet for expression. As Charlie says, “Life is quite difficult here under the ongoing Israeli occupation. There’s not really a whole lot to do, especially in the smaller villages. Skateboarding is a perfect outlet for the kids to express themselves and do something creative.”
Basma’s mother, Rania Sawalma, agrees. “The skatepark is good for Asira because it gives the children a place to play where their parents know that they will be safe,” she says. “It makes the children happy, because now they have somewhere to go.”
In September 2016, I travelled out to The West Bank with SkatePal. I had always wanted to make a difference by empowering girls through creativity and action sports, but never could I have imagined how much I truly would enjoy it and how much I would get out of the experience myself.
Before my time out there, I didn’t fully understand the conflict. Not that I know everything about it now, but I have made friends with girls and boys who live in it every day (both Palestinians and Israelis) and that has taught me a lot. When it comes to SkatePAL, the cliche is true: in skateboarding it doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, what religion you follow, age, sexual orientation, skin colour or skill level you may be. We’re all in it together and it’s fun—and in the middle of a very politicised and often violent conflict, that’s a crucial value. Skateboarding has the ability to transcend violence and politics, and ultimately inspire young people who often feel frustrated and powerless. It provides a positive and peaceful means of expression against the ongoing military occupation—and for little girls like Basma, that expression might just change the course of their futures.
Photo: Paula Viidu
To sum it up, skateboarding’s been proven to build youth confidence and teach young people to get back up after falling down. These are qualities that young girls in challenging situations can benefit tremendously from—so if you’ve ever thought about getting involved with empowering youth through sport or making a change through skateboarding, then there’s no better time for it than now.