Tunisia-born Maha Zaoui has only just been appointed Women’s Rugby Manager at Rugby Africa, but she has been working on her mission to grow female participation for the past few years.
Since she discovered the game of rugby in 2005, this university sport management teacher has never stopped.
In 2018, she was an inaugural recipient of the World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship to enhance women’s rugby in Africa. Two years later, her appointment at Rugby Africa will enable her to continue the work she has been doing within the Fédération Tunisienne de Rugby (FTR) for years, but on a bigger scale.
“It’s a new position that did not exist before,” Zaoui told World Rugby.
This appointment did not fall from the sky but reflects a journey she started many years ago. A first boost came in 2018 when, while she was in Botswana, she attended a seminar which coincided with the Rugby Africa Women’s Sevens.
Later that year, World Rugby’s scholarship allowed her to explore even further down this track.
“Thanks to this scholarship, I decided to get into the MEMOS programme, which is an Executive Masters of Sport Organisations [Management], run by the International Olympic Committee. It includes management in human resources, finances, strategy, governance, sponsorship.
“The programme lasted for one year and at the end I had to prepare a Masters thesis. The topic was women’s rugby in Africa with a strategy of development between 2019 and 2025.”
Foundations had been laid. “Then, I proposed to Rugby Africa a project to develop women’s rugby all around the continent both on and off the field, including administration, leadership, training, education … All of this helped me to be the successful applicant.”
How it feels to be a pioneer
Zaoui knows that her mission is a colossal one. “When I received the job description, I said ‘Woah!’” she laughs. “It’s a great challenge because, for sure, I will be like a pioneer in this area. With all my team, we will write a new chapter in rugby history.
“I won’t be by myself setting-up and organising women’s rugby in Africa. Together, we will be able to coordinate our collective resources and energy and I feel very proud of this.
“For me, it’s a real challenge but it’s also the way I used to work. I like setting myself difficult challenges. I am not going to work by myself on this, there will be a dedicated team, it won’t just be Maha’s project.
“I want to involve the female gender in every part of the structure in Africa. I feel good with this idea and I’m convinced that we are going to build something special there.”
Zaoui will lead her new mission, working closely with all the unions affiliated with Rugby Africa. Women’s rugby has already been introduced to 39 unions throughout the continent, according to a survey that will be refined in order to implement the new strategy.
Zaoui will not start from scratch, though. Her own experience within the FTR will be essential.
Tunisia, an experiment in women’s rugby
She has worked at the Tunisian federation for many years alongside Khaled Babbou, the President of Rugby Africa who is keen to promote women’s rugby in Africa during his tenure.
Promoting women’s rugby has been a Tunisian priority and Babbou has previously lauded the country’s qualification for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Argentina.
“In Tunisia, we realised that if we had a chance to shine in rugby, it was with the women,” recalled Zaoui.
“We have tried with men at sevens, we have put [in] a lot of money but it did not work. Then we realised that if we invest in the girls, we could do it.”
Rugby Africa, meanwhile, took the decision in October to award Tunisia the rights to host the continental women’s sevens tournament for the next three years.
“It’s not a template, but it shows that we can succeed with few means,” Zaoui said.
Her ambition for the next four years
“The potential is here. You just need to find the right missing link to achieve it. For example, why, today, is there only one African women’s team qualified to the Olympic Games?
“We need to push women’s rugby to go further.”
Following the broad outlines of her thesis, Zaoui does not hesitate to predict success over the next four years, even if her goal looks extremely ambitious.
“For me, the ideal scheme in women’s rugby during the next four years would be to have an African U16 and U18 championship, an innovative African Rugby Sevens Series (not just a tournament once a year), a continental 15s championship (connecting the four corners of Africa), a proper women’s rugby commission in Africa in terms of governance and administration (which would mean having one women’s rugby manager in each union) and a national women’s championship in each union affiliated with Rugby Africa,” Zaoui said.
She added with a strong conviction: “It will be possible in four years! It already exists here and there, but we need to coordinate and work together.
“The icing on the cake would be to have two women’s teams qualified for the Olympic Games, if possible for Paris 2024.”