Mrs Bahija is Tunisia’s leading football fan. Nearly 90, she has smashed stereotypes to support her team.
It is not hard to spot Mrs Bahija, Tunisia’s most famous football supporter. Clad in yellow and black, the colours of her favourite football team, Club Athlétique Bizertin (CAB), Mrs Bahija shuffles around her town, loudly greeting passers-by.
Her progress is slowed by her age, but the octogenarian still spends her days on the streets of her home town Bizerte (60 kilometres north of Tunis). Bahija, who has made frequent media appearances and has cut a deal to promote a telecommunications company, describes the CAB as her “whole life.”
Her passion for CAB clashed with conservative social norms. Bahija first entered a stadium in the 1970s, a time when women were not allowed to work in many spheres or go out barefaced.
She recalls that fateful first visit to the October 15th Stadium in Bizerte. “My eldest brother got angry and said: ‘our women are not allowed to go to stadiums or uncover their faces.’ He prevented me from going. Back then, women who went out without their husbands’ permission were divorced.”
Bahija’s solution was to visit a house near the stadium and watch the match from the roof. But that didn’t satisfy her passion for CAB so she went to the stadium, defying her eldest brother, who, according to the conservative tradition, represented her father’s authority. But her determination eventually wore her brother down and she continued to visit the stadium.
Marriage, no thanks
Bayya Sadqawi known as Bahija was born in 1924, the daughter of an Algerian father who fled the French Occupation and a Tunisian mother from Bizerte. Like other girls, she didn’t go to school but rather spent her day doing housework in her parents’ home in one of Bizerte’s alleys.
She refused to get married, even though scores of men wanted to marry her. She says she preferred to stay single and childless. Now, she lives alone in her parents’ house, although she sought refuge by relatives during the turmoil of the Revolution.
Bahija struggles financially: The government’s support amounts to just 170 dinar (about 90€) and is not enough to make ends meet. But her reputation means that Bizerte citizens provide her with what ever she needs. “They are all my children,” Bahija says.
Revenge and reward
Bahija spends her day walking local streets and wandering into shops and homes. She is welcomed wherever she goes and rarely pays for what she buys. In her hometown she is seen as a symbol of the region, part of its ‘local treasure’.
During the interview with Bahija, a local shop customer interjected, saying, “CAB will lose its next match.” The old woman got angry and started to shout. People always provoke their team’s leading supporter this way – and she always shouts back. Her larger-than-life character contrasts with her diminutive stature of just 130 cm.
She is a determined fan. One match, when the referee was partial to the rival, making CAB lose, Bahija responded by going to the referees’ changing room after the match, cutting off the hot water while he was in the bath, hoping he would catch a cold.
In recognition of her ongoing moral support, CAB administration rewarded her in 1988 funding her pilgrimage after it won the African Champions League.
Bahija passed away
Last March, there was a Facebook rumour that Bahija had passed away. Shocked locals flocked to her for hours and reporters tried to confirm the gossip. Two hours later, the old woman appeared on a radio channel, denying the rumour. “I was at home when I heard a knock on the door. When I opened, people started hugging me and said you are still alive! You are still alive!” she said.
Football above politics
Bizerte is one of the regions with the most Salafists, but Bahija rejects their outlook. She doesn’t agree with their belief that women should do nothing but to look after their homes and children. Much less does she share their idea that women should not enter stadiums to watch football matches.
The only exception to her disinterest in politics was when she voted for CAB’s director, who ran for the National Constituent Assembly elections. “I elected football and I will re-elect it,” she said.
In her opinion, Revolution’s biggest contribution is its steps to stamp out corruption among football referees.
Written by Majdi Ouerfelli and published with the courtesy of correspondents.org.