'We're proving them wrong day after day': Sask. women among growing number of female soccer refs
When Shukwia Tajik isn't working for the city as a project engineer, the Saskatoon woman puts on her black referee shoes, grabs her orange-and-yellow flags and heads onto the soccer field.
She is one of 313 active referees in Saskatchewan, ready to be appointed to men's or women's soccer matches.
During this year's World Cup, Tajik is closely following the work of her international colleagues in Qatar, including France's Stephanie Frappart, who became the first woman to take charge of a men's World Cup match earlier this month.
Frappart had two women as assistants at her side — Neuza Back of Brazil and Karen Diaz Medina of Mexico — to complete an all-female refereeing trio on the field.
"Watching them perform, doing such an amazing job, was very exciting," said Tajik.
"They're setting the stage for the rest of us, right? So it's just up to us to keep the momentum going and work to get to that level."
FIFA, the international soccer association, appointed 129 officials for the World Cup in Qatar — 36 referees, 69 assistant referees and 24 video match officials.
For the first time, FIFA also included women on the list of chosen referees for a men's world cup, with six female officials selected.
Despite the international attention on Frappart for handling the match between Germany and Costa Rica in Qatar, Tajik said the goal for female officials is to be perceived as a referee, rather than focusing on their gender.
1st international tournament
Tajik fell in love with soccer as a teenager, when her family moved to Canada in 2008.
The former refugee, originally from Afghanistan, said she always wanted to be athletic, but didn't have many opportunities to play sports in Iran, where she lived before coming to Canada.
"When we first moved to Canada, I wanted to be involved in as many sports as I can," she said. She first joined soccer at her high school, then the wrestling team.
In 2012, Tajik and her brother attended an entry-level course for referees in Saskatchewan. About five years later, she applied to get her provincial classification.
As an official for Saskatchewan Soccer, Tajik mostly works as an assistant referee during university-level soccer matches.
This past summer, however, the Saskatoon woman was one of four Canadians chosen to officiate at the 2022 girls' under-15 championship for CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) in the United States.
"It's been great so far," she said. "I am hoping to get my FIFA badge eventually. That's the ultimate goal."
17 Canadians on international FIFA list
One of Tajik's role models is Chantal Boudreau, who first started officiating 12 years ago.
The full-time assistant referee — originally from Regina, and now living in Ontario — is one of 17 Canadian officials on the 2022 FIFA list of referees and assistant referees.
Since getting her FIFA badge, Boudreau has been appointed to various high-level soccer matches, including Major League Soccer games, the Women's World Cup in 2019 and the Women's Olympic soccer tournament in 2021.
"I love the aspect of being able to contribute to this game, which is a beautiful game," said Boudreau.
"Whether it's a men's game or women's game, you're dealing with professional athletes.… This is what they do for a livelihood. So what you do and how you perform on the field matters to them, and it matters to the fans and to the people watching these games."
Boudreau said she feels respected by the male athletes on the field.
However, "there's always going to be fans that are going to negate it and say, 'No, women don't deserve to be in this game, they don't deserve to be on the pitch with these men, they're not fast enough,'" said Boudreau.
"But at the end of the day we have to run fitness tests, we have to train just as hard as these men do…. We're proving them wrong day after day, across the board."
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Boudreau said she loves the challenges of being a referee, regardless of the athletes' gender.
She hopes in the next few years, professional leagues like MLS will have more female referees blowing the whistle during the matches.
"To feel the support as a female from my male counterparts … is super important," said Boudreau.
"I think we have so much development that has come, and we have still so much more work to do."
'Blazing a trail'
The list of active officials in Saskatchewan still has more men than women.
Out of the 313 referees in the province ready to be appointed to soccer matches, 72 are female and 241 are male, according to the Saskatchewan Soccer Association.
The organization said it doesn't have data on how many women are assigned to men's matches, but who gets appointed as an official is based on qualification, not gender.
"One of the things that we are seeing with some of our targeted initiatives is an increase of female officials," said Rahim Mohamed, executive director of the Saskatchewan Soccer Association.
"Things don't just change overnight. They take time and dedication, and we're seeing the impact of that time and dedication from those that have been involved in our refereeing world really making an impact now."
Mohamed said Frappart's appointment at this year's World Cup was an inspiration for the next generation of female officials following in her footsteps.
Tajik is a mentor for new referees in Saskatchewan, while constantly working on improving her own skills, she said.
Like Boudreau, the Saskatoon woman gave up playing soccer to focus on her referee career.
While Tajik works on her goal to make it onto FIFA's international list, Boudreau is hoping for a call to the Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next year.
"Women are just blazing a trail now, which is so fantastic, to becoming more of an equal partner within this entire society."