With her traditional head covering and black gown, it's hard to believe that Maryam Abu-Ghanem is a physical education teacher, but this 28-year old Bedouin woman from the town of Tel Sheva has shattered a lot of stereotypes, and in the process has been recognized as the first female sports teacher in the Bedouin community.

In honor of International Women's Day, which is being observed today, she has decided to speak up.

"I worked very hard," she said. "I refused to stand on the sidelines and be a pitiful girl, and here I am." Abu-Ghanem has two bachelor's degrees, one in physical education and the other in special education. She also has a master's in education administration and certification as a soccer coach and basketball coach. The term "first" comes up repeatedly in conversation with her.

She was in the first class of a Bedouin national service program, and the first Bedouin woman to earn a degree in physical education. And the first to play on a professional soccer team. Later she created the first education program for fitness center instructors in the Bedouin community.

Abu-Ghanem will participate next week in a panel dealing with women and sports in Israel. The panel will be held in Tel Aviv University and is called "A league of their own? Between exclusion and integration." The event was organized by the New Israel Fund together with the Israel Football Association, the Gender Studies Program at Tel Aviv University and International Council of Jewish Women. "I will talk about what it means to be a feminist woman and an athlete in a traditional society," she said.

'Mrs. Maradona'

"Originally I actually intended to study social work, like a lot of Bedouin women," she recalled, but for practical reasons she gravitated to studying preschool education at the Kaye Academic College of Education in Be'er Sheva. "I didn't want to disappoint the family, because I was my parents' hope," she said of her initial academic path, but she quickly became bored with learning "how to make decorations," as she put it. One day Abu-Ghanem walked out of her classroom and never came back.

While deliberating over her future career path, she spent long hours in the gym at Kaye College. "I was throwing baskets and one of the staff told me I should study physical education," she recalled. She was convinced, but the decision was greeted with chuckles among her female friends at the college.

"I was accepted because of my grades and not due to any kind of affirmative action [policy]," she said. The only condition she was required to meet was coming to class in athletic garb and leaving her long black robes at home. "Deep inside, I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. When it came down to it, I had come to study something I loved and wanted," she said, although at first she experienced some confusion. "I felt like I had fallen from the moon. In the hall, I heard someone comment once, 'Who would marry a girl who chases a ball?'"

Abu-Ghanem's affection for playing with a ball came at an early age. "When I was a girl, I played soccer with my brother. He would position me at the goal and kick the ball. They called me Mrs. Maradona from Tel Sheva," she said, as if she were the female equivalent of the star Argentinean soccer player Diego Maradona. "I would wash the dishes two hours in advance so my mother wouldn't have a choice and had to let me watch the games."

While pursuing her physical education studies she also established Kaye College's first women's soccer team. At first she played in long clothing and with her head covered. She faced a dilemma, however, when she joined Be'er Sheva's professional Maccabi Li women's soccer team. Although she wanted to continue playing fully covered, she also didn't want to draw attention to herself, she explained.

In the end she dispensed with her traditional clothing entirely and wore the same uniform as her teammates on the field, but as soon as the games ended, she changed back into traditional dress. On more than one occasion, the women on the opposing team seemed startled to see the quick transformation. One teacher, she said, even asked her once if she had dressed up in a Bedouin costume.

Abu-Ghanem has paid a price for her commitment to Bedouin garb. At the entrance to Kaye College, there are pictures depicting the championship won by the college's women's basketball team on which she played. "It was a huge achievement, but you won't see me in the pictures," she said, "because I didn't want to have my picture taken like everyone [else], without a head covering."

"I don't want to come out against my society. I respect it and respect where I was born and progressed. I am a believer, and I pray and fast and keep the religion," she said.

She had to give up playing two years ago due to injury, but in consolation registered to train to become a soccer coach. When she finished the course, she faced other difficulties. "No one spread out a red carpet for me," she said. When she applied for a position as an elementary school physical education teacher, she was turned down with the explanation that she couldn't be hired because there were also boys among the students she would be teaching. She was ultimately offered positions at a junior high and a high school in Tel Sheva.

For some girls in the Bedouin community, it is considered shameful to engage in sports, she said, adding, "There are still families in which the girls don't study at all. There are girls who suffer in marriage and are abandoned after the man marries three other women." She also took exception to the high Bedouin birthrate and acknowledged that this stance might anger some of her fellow Bedouin.