Women’s World Cup: Morocco 1, Western media 0

Their record run is defeating the Western media’s efforts to stereotype Arab teams.

morocco world cup win
Morocco's Nouhaila Benzina celebrates after her side beat Colombia in their World Cup Group H match in Perth, Australia, on August 3, 2023 to qualify for the knockout stages [Luisa Gonzalez/REUTERS]

It’s a historic moment for Morocco and, in particular, for the country’s women.

Eight months after their male counterparts made history in reaching the semi-finals of the men’s World Cup, the Moroccan women’s football team have shaken up the sport’s traditional hierarchy.

The first Arab and Muslim-majority nation to qualify for the ongoing Women’s World Cup, the Moroccan side has stunned football pundits, defeating Colombia and South Korea to reach the final 16.

Yet, it’s not just opposing football teams that the Atlas Lionesses, as the team is called, have had to dribble past to get where they have.

One incident, in particular, has stood out.

Ahead of the World Cup, one BBC journalist felt it appropriate to pose a question, wholly unrelated to football, to the Moroccan team captain, Ghizlane Chebbak.

“In Morocco, it’s illegal to have a gay relationship. Do you have any gay players in your squad and what’s life like for them in Morocco?,” asked the BBC reporter during the pre-match press conference in Melbourne before Morocco’s clash with Germany.

Chebbak looked perplexed by the line of questioning and a FIFA official moderating the press conference immediately interjected: “Sorry, this is a very political question so we will just stick to questions relating to football.”

The BBC journalist, however, doubled down on his line of interrogation.

In Morocco, homosexuality can result in three years imprisonment and for that reason alone, it was utterly irresponsible to put pressure on the Moroccan captain to out anyone who may be gay. Nor was it the correct platform for players to be forced to come out as gay (if there are any gay players on the team) if they had not chosen to do so themselves.

But the question also revealed problematic biases. The Moroccan men’s team – also targets of racism – have not been asked this question. Did the BBC journalist fall into the trap of gender stereotyping that only gay women play football, an issue which the BBC itself has previously campaigned against?

Hosted in Australia and New Zealand, the Women’s World Cup – like the men’s edition last year – has witnessed a range of firsts from Morocco, whose team also includes the first-ever hijabi player to compete in the tournament.

Questions surrounding these achievements would have been entirely suitable but to focus on the one Arab nation in the event and attempt to shed a negative light on the country reeks of the sense of moral superiority Western media also demonstrated when Qatar hosted the 2022 men’s World Cup.

No journalist has gone around asking Lindsey Horan or Alex Morgan, the US women’s national team co-captains, what life is like for the Black American players in their team considering the racist police brutality that persists in the US.

They haven’t been asked questions about abortion rights being overturned in the US or the illegal invasion of Iraq and its compounding consequences two decades later.

These are important political debates to have but to choose whom to ask selectively, at a sporting event, especially when the players have not campaigned on the issues themselves, suggests prejudice at best and an agenda at worst.

Asking Colin Kaepernick, for example, about police brutality is logical considering he fronted the ‘take a knee’ movement. But you would never go to a mechanic to ask a medical question.

It has become a pattern to show moral superiority over Arab nations. When no other nation is receiving questions about LGBTQ rights or any other political issue, to single out Morocco indicates this tendency to enforce Western perspectives worldwide.

The Qatar World Cup last year was similarly bombarded with criticism, much of it laced with Orientalism and racism. Such concerns are raised with other Arab nations looking to promote their own sport sectors.

Somehow, however, there has been little backlash to the US, Canada and Mexico hosting the 2026 men’s World Cup. No questions on structural racism, ongoing forced labour, immigration rights, devastating gun violence and more have been posed to the US camp.

This sense of moral superiority is not limited to football either. Movies selected for Oscar nominations that have storylines based in the Middle East have all, in recent years, been ones that show the region either through a lens of war, terrorism or oppression.

Films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, which both won the Academy Awards, showed the region as violent, without questioning the role of US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in fuelling that violence. It’s been the same with the films from the region nominated for Oscars, such as Capernaum, Omar and Paradise Now.

They are all excellent movies in their own right but for only them to be selected for Academy Award nominations and other, non-violence-related stories to not be shortlisted, points to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of the Arab world.

We should be celebrating the region’s achievements and progress. Let’s not forget, this World Cup has been one of many firsts for Moroccan women.

Among the earliest universities in the world was founded by Fatima al-Fihriya, a Moroccan woman, over a millennium ago.

Since the question on LGBTQ rights was posed to the Moroccan captain, the BBC has apologised after receiving widespread backlash. But it is the Western media as a whole that must reflect.

Sport, and football in particular, is supposed to be a unifying factor across the world. The World Cup is a great occasion to deliver on that promise. By using that platform to demonstrate deep-rooted biases against the Arab world, the Western media only exposes itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.