Fouzia Madhouni practices with her recreational American football team, the Jaguars. Photo courtesy of Association Marocaine Jaguars du Football Americain.
Last updated December 2019.
RABAT, Morocco—As the sun sets over Rabat’s corner of the Atlantic Ocean every evening, the various athletic fields that line the city’s waterfront come to life. Young people, primarily men, flood the terrains to play sports, primarily soccer, for hours on end. Grunts and shouts in Moroccan Arabic can be heard along the coast all night. But on Thursday evenings, under the fluorescent lights of a particular field near Avenue Al Fath, the cacophony is interrupted. The dozens of young people who race across the turf are not nearly all men, and they’re not playing soccer. Instead of yelling “Yalla,” this team shouts “Set, hut!”
“I feel very strong when I’m playing. I feel like a different person,” said 24-year-old Fouzia Madhouni, co-founder and co-captain of the Jaguars, a recreational American football team based in Rabat. “I feel the confidence I was looking for for ages.”
The Jaguars have two teams: a women’s team of 25 players and a men’s team of 30. The former is the largest women’s American football team in Rabat, and as far as Madhouni knows, in all of Morocco. The teams practice twice a week, on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings, where they spend the first half of practice co-ed, warming up and running drills together, then divide by gender for the second half to play games.
The men typically play tackle football, the traditional version of the game where players tackle each other to the ground to end a down. The women play flag football, where instead of tackling their opponents, players neutralize them by pulling belts lined with fabric flags from their opponents’ waists. But the men are willing to compromise for the sake of inclusivity—at a recent practice, there was such a low turnout of women that they couldn’t play their own game, so the guys put on flag belts and played with the girls.
“[The men] could play tackle and we are going to watch. But today they are playing flag with us,” Madhouni said that Thursday night, as she caught her breath on the side of the field. “Most of them hate flag football — they don’t know how to play. But they are doing it anyways. They are making the sacrifice just to support us.” However, men haven’t always been so welcoming to Madhouni on the football field.
Standing at five feet tall and often found wearing large, thick-framed glasses, Madhouni isn’t exactly the picture of an athlete. But Madhouni, who has lived in Salé her entire life, has been athletic for as long as she can remember. She practiced taekwondo at a private studio as a kid, then became a sprinter for her public middle school’s track team.
“It’s the only thing that I love in life,” Madhouni said about sports. “It’s my happy place.”
Her love for sports didn’t extend to American football until 2015. At the time, Madhouni was studying at Mohammed V University. Scrolling through Instagram one afternoon, she saw a picture of a female classmate wearing an American football helmet, and immediately felt an urge to wear one herself. She asked the classmate, who at the time was one of a few girls casually playing with a men’s recreational football team called the Rabat Lions, if she would bring her to a practice. Although the classmate originally told Madhouni she was too short to play football, Madhouni persisted and eventually made it onto the field.
Madhouni and her classmate were an exception on the Lions, a men’s tackle football team, whose captains allowed a few women to play with them during some practices, but excluded them from participating in official tournaments.
“They didn’t take girls seriously,” Madhouni said of her time with the team. “They were only interested in boys.”
Madhouni loved the sport, but grew increasingly frustrated with the amount of time she was forced to spend on the sidelines during official games. After a few months with the Lions, Madhouni decided she would improve more if she trained on her own, so in 2016, she took time off to improve her speed, agility and technique under the supervision of Tarik Nabati, a teammate from the Lions. Nabati, a tall, determined quarterback and student, became more than a trainer to Madhouni—he became her boyfriend, and the couple is proudly leading the Jaguars together today.
When they weren’t on the field working on Madhouni’s technique, the couple avidly watched videos on Instagram and YouTube of people playing football in the United States. When Madhouni caught wind of flag football through her research, she thought it might solve the gender imbalance that strength-based tackle football posed for women on the Lions. She asked the Lions captains if they would consider incorporating flag football into practices, but they weren’t interested.
“Why should I suggest my ideas to them when I can make them?” Madhouni asked herself. So she quit the Lions for good and resolved to do exactly that. She organized a preliminary meeting with Nabati and some female friends, where they decided to name their team the Jaguars after the Jacksonville, Florida NFL team. They scheduled their first practice for a couple weeks later.
Madhouni and Nabati had been planning to use borrowed footballs from the Lions, but their former teammates called them the day before and asked for their balls back. “I swear to God. I had no balls, no flags,” Madhouni said. A self-described “crybaby,” Madhoun said she began sobbing as she walked down Rabat’s streets to return the balls to the Lions, when a stranger, who had presumably heard her discussing the situation with Nabati, approached her.
“He was like, ‘I have the same ball. You want it?’” she recalled with disbelief. “It was a sign. That was our sign. And from that time, we never skipped a practice.”
Not everyone was so supportive of the Jaguars. Only three girls showed up to that first practice. At the second one, no one came besides Madhouni and Nabati. Some of Madhouni’s former teammates from the Lions—the women, primarily—took to Instagram and Facebook to make fun of her for trying to play football with flags. “Here in Morocco, when you break barriers, you start being the bad person,” she said. “I cried. It was really hurtful.”
Determined, Madhouni and Nabati kept going to their spot on a Rabat beach every week, football and homemade flags in tow. Word started to spread. The girls who came to that first practice eventually came back with sisters, cousins and friends. Madhouni made an Instagram account for the team, which gained a significant following and a number of direct messages from women interested in playing. Now, she laughs recalling what former teammates from the Lions said about her on social media.
“They were like, ‘She doesn’t know anything about football. She’s not gonna survive one month,’” she said. “I survived the first year. The second year. The third year. Now it’s our fourth year, and we’re still surviving.”
Impressively, Madhouni is surviving, too. In addition to being a captain of the Jaguars, which requires planning practices, meeting regularly with players, and attending all games and practices, she trains three times at the gym every week and works 50 hours per week at a travel agency call center. The job gives her ample opportunity to practice her English with callers, but it doesn’t give her much time to sleep.
“I love sleeping, but I don’t, because I really have a lot of things to do,” Madhouni said.
Madhouni rarely gets more than six hours of rest a night, she said, which you’d never guess from her energetic nature. Madhouni greets everyone with her beaming smile, a warm hug, and kisses on the cheek—which she sometimes has to get on her tip-toes to do—and seldom does she let a friend get away without inquiring about how they’ve been. She speaks frequently and with energy, and listens to others attentively, with wide eyes.
Selma el Azaceui, a graphic design student, has been playing with the Jaguars for two years. She said Madhouni is like a sister to her and the rest of the players. “Fouzia is someone who is very, very attached to the team. She tries very hard to create this family atmosphere. On the field we’re all a big family, and that’s thanks to her,” she said.
Madhouni is a fantastic leader, and she knows it—“Even if the King is going to be there, I will talk in confidence,” she said with a laugh—but she hasn’t always been so secure.
“The Fouzia that was five years ago, she’s not the same anymore,” she said. “I was a shy person, who was scared to do a lot. Besides confidence, I wasn’t having goals in life. I was thinking about working a regular job, get money, help family, and that’s it. But once I started playing football, I started having new goals, new dreams.”
One of Madhouni’s dreams is to go back to school, which she took a break from two years ago to work full-time and make money for her family, who was facing financial insecurity. “I really, really love studying, but I didn’t get the chance to,” she said. She plans to return to Mohammed V for a bachelor’s degree in English literature. “My mom would be very happy,” she said. The thought brought tears to her eyes.
After college, Madhouni plans to become certified to teach Arabic as a foreign language. She wants to move to the United States to teach—and play football, of course. Her ultimate dream is to bring her knowledge about the sport back to Morocco, where she wants to drive a bus across the country and teach women about flag football. “I really don’t want them to miss this feeling,” she said, her eyes glistening. “I will start with my country first, then I can go anywhere else.”
Some people might say traveling around North Africa on a bus with the sole purpose of teaching women about American football is a ridiculous idea. But other people’s doubts have never stopped Madhouni before.
Feldman studied journalism, culture and politics in Morocco through SIT Study Abroad in fall 2019.