In celebration of our International Women’s weeks, but also out of the absolute necessity to make the life-realities of womxn visible, we’ve decided to initiate an interview series that circulates around the way womxn from our community embrace their womanhood. Through The Femxle Side of Things, we intend to highlight how women continue to be a fundamental pillar of our community. We want to start a conversation that highlights both tales of femxle empowerment and challenges that women face in our male-dominated society, to paint a broader picture of a group of people that is often not listened to in the way they deserve. In the second round, we welcome Ireti and Roli-Ann, two amazing women who talked to us about their experiences on and off the basketball court.
Hi Roli-Ann AND Ireti, For those who don’t know, who are you? And where are you at the moment?
Roli-Ann: Hi! My name is Roli-Ann Neubauer and I am from Berlin Germany.I’m 36 years old, wife, and mother of two boys age 5 and 6. I`m an ex-professional basketball player. I played in the USA, Italy, and Germany. I was born in Berlin-Neukölln and have two siblings. My dad is Nigerian and my mother is of Finnish-Swedish origin.
Ireti: I am 30 years old, and recently stopped playing basketball due to an injury. I have been playing basketball for the last 20 years of my life. I went on to play college Basketball after I graduated from High School in Berlin and returned to play for the first Division in Germany. I also had the opportunity to play for the German National Team. While I miss basketball very much, I am happy that I am healthy again, and am already exploring other sports I might be able to do post corona restrictions.
How did you get into basketball and what does the sport still mean to you?
Ireti: I randomly picked up basketball at an after-school program at my elementary school. Basketball has always given me structure and a sense of purpose during my teenage years and young adult life up until a couple years ago. I will always feel a special connection and gratitude for the sport and everything it has given me from lifelong friends, stability, traveling to education, and setting me up for my future.
Roli: For my siblings and myself, growing up sports was always a must. We all started off in track and field. Throughout the years I tried many different sports such as field hockey, table tennis, swimming, and soccer but ended up playing basketball because my older brother played it and I wanted to be just like him. During my professional career, I, unfortunately, suffered many knee injuries which resulted in ending my standing basketball career. Basketball always gave me a feeling of belonging and purpose so I’ve decided to prolong my love for the game and continued my career by playing wheelchair basketball.
What is your definition of womxnhood?
Roli: Womxnhood is a powerful given gift that should be truly embraced. Womxn possess an endless spectrum of abilities and attributes. Some of the core values as a womxn to me are strength, dignity, courage but at the same time being feminine, sensitive, and vulnerable.
Ireti: Womxnhood constitutes strength, resilience, determination and at the same time being the glue that keeps everyone and everything together with compassion and warmth.
What empowers you as a womxn?
Ireti: The compassion and support from my loved ones.
Roli: What empowers me as a womxn is being confident in my opinion and standing up for myself and others. It’s being aware of my many different abilities.
What strategies have you developed over the years being in this male-dominated branch of sports?
Roli: To be honest, I never really had a strategy. I always knew my worth and I fully focused on that. I enjoyed flexing on the dudes on the court, teaching them to think twice before picking me last. That always seemed to work.
Ireti: I have grown a really thick skin and nothing really surprises me anymore. This strategy protects me emotionally but at the same time, it also makes me numb to some of the inequalities womxn have to deal with in the field of sport. I think it’s a fine line between maintaining that protective layer emotionally and at the same time letting yourself be bothered and speaking up no matter who is listening.
Who are your femxle role models and why?
Ireti: My mother and my godmother are my biggest femxle role models. Combined they have all the qualities of my definition of womxnhood.
Roli: Growing up I didn’t have any femxle role models that I was able to identify with, which is a clear indication of the lack of powerful womxn portrayed in the media back in the days. Nowadays, I see many womxn who do astonishing things. I admire their ability and willpower to go for whatever it is their desire regardless of society’s preconditioning. There are so many womxn that possess different characteristics that inspire me to push forward when facing challenges throughout my life.
Any specific ones in music and sports?
Roli: Naomi Osaka, Andraya Yearwood, Candace Parker, Cardi B.
Ireti: There are many individuals in music and sports that have inspired and fascinated me based on their talents or drive. But I never wanted to imitate their behavior or be like them. I have always had difficulty answering this question of my popular role models in sports because it’s always just been the womxn closest to me in my life that I was modeling my life after.
As women tend to be excluded from public narratives, which stories of womxn would you like to hear or share more?
Roli: Media is one of the most influential forms of socialization in today’s society. Individuals see images, narratives etc. of what it means to be a womxn or a man. To be more specific, I’d like to hear more about the gender imbalance. These gender differences are very visible in the world of sports. I would like to see more womxn speak up for themselves and others addressing these absolutely unfair conditions. More so, men can become allies to these womxn using their platform to raise awareness of how dope womxn really are. The lack of coverage and acknowledgment of womxn sports and femxle athletes leads the sports consumer to believe that their sport is not important and not worthy of being covered. I think this inequality within sports will continue to exist until the media reexamines the portrayal of femxle athletes.
Ireti: I think social media makes a huge difference today as compared to when I was young and literally did not have any access to the stories and lives of professional womxn athletes. A lot has changed today in that regard. Even if those stories are not discussed in public narratives, I have the power to choose who I follow and whose narratives I want to see on my timelines. And that is what I would encourage young womxn athletes to do: create your own social media or online world where you see the narratives that you need and want, and that push you to pursue your goals.
Can you name a moment that made you realize what the power of a womxn is?
Roli: It’s the moment when my girlfriends and I sit together and talk about the beauty of life and the struggles each of us faces. We hear each other and we acknowledge each other’s pain. Those are the moments when I realize how strong womxn are.
Ireti: I think my last big aha moment was learning about the near-death experience Serena Williams had after giving birth and then only taking a year off from Tennis, defying all odds, and being back in the top 10 now. It’s just incredible what she has accomplished and unprecedented. I was entirely in awe of her!
On a critical note: Where are we with Womxn’s Basketball IN 2021? And seeing it more locally – How is it going with WBB in Germany?
Roli: Womxn’s basketball has evolved and the game of womxn’s basketball has evolved. It has a faster pace and the most amazing thing is the fact that we have a whole lot of teenage girls and women dunking! People who don’t participate in watching are truly missing out.
From what I know now (inactive for 8 years) unfortunately womxn’s basketball in Germany made a couple steps backward. German teams do not invest in players anymore which makes the German league a mediocre league to play in. This results in having an unsatisfactory German national team as well.
Ireti: I think Germany compares badly with other countries. A few years ago, the professional basketball league diminished incentives for German talents to develop and stay in the German league. Our best players today have mostly been developed and socialised into basketball in other countries. I think that speaks for itself. I still don’t see that the National Team equally invests in the womxn even though they are the most talented they have been in decades.
Do you feel things have developed for the better within the last two decades?
Ireti: Ireti: Overall, yes! Things have developed for womxn in basketball. There are still great issues as seen with the recent social media shitstorm during the NCAA tournament where the femxle weight room looked like the women’s corner at McFIT while the male weight room was huge and fully equipped. That was definitely a moment where I put on my thick skin and continued scrolling down my timeline. But overall, things are moving forward regarding facilities, sponsorships, and media coverage; also in some European countries.
Roli: Yes, things got better due to more media coverage and a handful of femxle athletes in top positions fighting for better conditions by raising awareness. Femxle athletes have finally been given more endorsement deals and appear in commercials and general pop culture more frequently.
What changes have you witnessed over the years within the realm of professional sports as femxle athletes?
Ireti: I think the biggest change I have witnessed is the increased visibility of femxle athletes due to social media and the growing responsibility that comes with that. I think many femxle athletes carry themselves very professionally. They are more than just athletes and even though their sponsorships may not compare to those of male athletes, at least now femxle athletes are more commonly given sponsorships at all.
Roli: A prolific advancement of womxn sports and femxle athletes has been the portrayal of them being positive role models.
What are the main challenges that you face as a womxn in our society?
Ireti: I think the preconceived perception of what is appropriate for womxn to do and what society expects of them, only to be in total shock when womxn do not fit these predefined boxes.
Roli: The lack of womxn in positions of power. The sooner we understand that the lack of womxn in leadership roles holds back not only womxn but all people, the sooner we will be able to advance our society as a whole.
What are the main challenges that you face as a female athlete?
Roli: To me the first challenge was being paid less. Way less of what was given to my male counterparts for doing absolutely the same thing. Which made me have a plan B from the very beginning, knowing I would not have millions in my bank account after retiring from basketball.
The second challenge is to be subjected to objectification and invisibility compared to male athletes. There is still a focus with the body of a femxle athlete than their athletic skills.
Ireti: When I was still playing it was the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to play forever and that I needed a plan B. I always had different timeframes in the back of my head. I am lucky that I was able to fall back on my plan B after my active career, but still, sometimes I wish I could have let all the planning go and just let myself fully immerse in being an athlete.
Is there a women’s initiative or organisation that you would like to shine a light on?
Roli: Yes. Tupoka Ogette with her Tupodcast. I really admire how she shares the stories of black womxn. Sisterhood stories.
Ireti: Africa United Sports Club is a great initiative for Black children and youngsters, enabling forms of exchange within the community.
INTERVIEW: LARISSA CLARK
PHOTOGRAPHY: HEJFAB @BERLIN ALTER