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How Young Muslim Women Are Changing Sport In England

From skateboarding and running to boxing and football, the rise of inspirational Muslim women in sport is in full swing. The only way is up for these generation-defining game changers

Sports – a multitude of games that develop personal growth and ambition – a gateway for team building and moments of sheer individual brilliance. Above it all, sport, like every other area of life, should be a place totally free of discrimination.

When the latest government report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published their findings last month and stated that the UK is “not deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities,” there was widespread surprise and anger. For anyone who’s fallen down threads on Twitter and Instagram recently, especially those belonging to public figures such as athletes, the rhetoric of the report was a hard pill to swallow. The report, its numerous critics pointed out, failed to join the dots between skewed employment stats, societal structures, the criminal justice system, and media narratives. What’s more, it failed to highlight how all these things can then fuel racism in everyday life.

“Sport, like every other area of life, should be a place totally free of discrimination”

Just the other day, Liverpool FC Women player Rinsola Babajide was the target of racist and sexist abuse online – the 22-year-old posted about her new boots on her Instagram account to which a user replied saying: “football is only for men…” followed by the use of a racial slur.

Events like this are happening on these platforms, and in real life, as an everyday occurrence. From racial slurs to lack of representation, these are just some of the big issues that ethnic minorities encounter.

Photo Credit: Sisterhood FC

In the face of all this, countless groups are standing up for what they believe in. Take Black Girls Hike and Steppers UK. They are bringing diversity to the UK’s countryside with their inspiring walking groups

Changing the face of sport is no easy mission. For Muslim women, hurdles are everywhere. They are, as well as racism and misrepresentation in tabloids, met with setbacks that range from cultural pressure, familial judgment, and even bans on the hijab (the Islamic headscarf). 

Even the Olympic Games, that supposed bastion of global unity and togetherness, has had bans on hijabs in previous editions. On the surface, the 2016 Rio Olympics may have looked like a monumental win for Muslim women as 14 female athletes found themselves amongst the medals. However, the counterargument there is that this was from a spread of 306 events (there will be, if it goes ahead, 339 events at the next Olympics).

“Changing the face of sport is no easy mission”

If the dream of equality is ever going to be reached, there’s a sense that sporting associations need to step forward into the 21st century and accept the changing nature of the world. They don’t have an excuse. Sports hijabs exist and are fully operational – they pose no risk to the athlete, and they should never, it’s reasonably argued, have had a ban placed on them in the first place.

This being said, Rio 2016 did have some positive signs that real change was starting to take place. Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history by becoming the first American to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab. Dalilah Muhammad also became the first Muslim American woman to win a gold medal in the 400 metre hurdles.

So, where does England fit into all of this? Well, look closely enough and you’ll find that, up-and-down the country young Muslim women athletes are not only rising but thriving.

Ramla Ali

 

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Ramla Ali is someone whose name is synergistic with the rise – someone who embodies determination, drive, and dexterity. It hasn’t been an easy journey for the boxer, not by any means.

After fleeing the civil war in Somalia, her family eventually settled in Britain. It was here where she secretly took up boxing, being careful not to get detected by her mother and family members who were devout Muslims.

It wasn’t until 2014 when one of her brothers turned on the television to see his sister in a boxing match that her mother found out for the first time. She immediately asked Ramla to stop boxing at once, and she did exactly that…for about six months.

She couldn’t deny herself, and in 2016 she was considered to be the best amateur boxer in the country in her weight division. She went on to win the Elite National Championships, the Great British Elite Championships, and the English Title Series.

“It wasn’t until 2014 when one of her brothers turned on the television to see his sister in a boxing match that her mother found out”

Now Ramla is a professional boxer with a record of 2-0 and is managed by the one and only Anthony Joshua. But it hasn’t always been this plain sailing. She’s had to go through a lot just to be between those ropes.

https://youtu.be/lyJYStA-NzY

In the 1980s, Somalia was embroiled in a brutal civil war, with Ramla’s eldest brother tragically killed by a grenade after he was playing outside. Her family knew they had to escape to a safer place.

Upon driving through bullets and warfare, the next step was to be a gruelling nine-day boat journey to Kenya on a vessel that was built to hold 200 people – not the 500 that were on board.

Before strapping on her first pair of gloves, she had already been through so many fights in her life. A fighter inside and outside of the ring – she’s aiming to become the first Somalian to win a medal at the Olympics and the first to win a world title.

Why not for England? It’s clear as day that she has the talent and the fists. But ultimately, it comes down to a serious lack of opportunities to represent England. She also doesn’t know her exact age. Fleeing the civil war meant she has no official or unofficial documentation of her birth. She judges herself to be somewhere between 28 and 30 years old.

In 2018, she made the decision to represent her country of birth.

Becoming the first female boxer to ever represent Somalia at the World Championships, she followed this up by winning the 2019 African Zone featherweight title – the first-ever boxer to win an African title for Somalia.

“A fighter inside and outside of the ring – she’s aiming to become the first Somalian to win a medal at the Olympics”

Representing her place of birth is something that goes beyond herself. It’s about being an inspiration for girls who find themselves in the position she was when younger or when she  hid her craft from her family.

Away from the ring, she continues to be a catalyst for the rise of young Muslim women in sport. She was chosen by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, who featured the boxer on the cover of Vogue as one of the ‘forces for change’. On top of this, she is delivering self-defence classes to women through her ‘Sisters Club and giving 25% of her boxing income to Black Lives Matter campaigns.

Whatever the outcome of her Olympic dream, Ramla Ali doesn’t need the validation of a medal dangling from around her neck. She is already a hero to many, and will continue fighting for the Muslim community wherever she goes.

Photo Credit: Ramla Ali

Hijabi Runners

 

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The rise of young Muslim women in sports isn’t just about one force. It’s about a collective movement.

This seems a very fitting way to describe Hijabi Runners. An all-ages running group that is dedicated to getting Muslim runners out running and racing by breaking down boundaries and stereotypes. The key thing about this group though is inclusion. You don’t need to have a hijab, be Muslim, or be an ethnic minority. You just need to be a woman who wants to go for a run.

The group is based in Leeds where teenagers to seniors can join, and the best thing is that you don’t even need to be an experienced runner; just bring a pair of trainers and learn the way as you go.

“An all-aged running group that is dedicated to getting Muslim runners out running and racing by breaking down the boundaries and stereotypes”

This 50-plus strong group was created by Namrah Shahid in 2019. She decided to start the founding of Hijabi Runners because she wanted to banish the stereotypes that are rife within the Muslim community surrounding women exercising.

The more she descended into running, the more she became aware of gender norms in the British Pakistani community – where women are discouraged from exercising.

She wanted to change all of this, and by exploring things like Parkrun, Namrah started to see the lack of diversity. This didn’t stop her though; it only made her dream bigger. In 2017, she completed the Leeds Half Marathon in 1:59:29.

She started to post her running journey on social media. This encouraged many of her hijab-wearing friends to interact with her posts and ask how they could start running themselves. It was this that spurred her to create Hijabi Runners in a massive sprint towards change.

Skater Uktis

 

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It isn’t just conventional sports that are making waves when it comes to the rise of young Muslim women. Skater Uktis, which started in London in January 2020, have really got the wheels moving on the movement and are looking to inspire Muslim women through skateboarding and spirituality.

Skater Uktis say “We are not an ordinary organisation, we are a movement. This is a sisterhood run by the sisterhood, to serve the sisterhood.”

Skater Uktis is the all-women global Muslim skate crew on a mission to connect all Muslim women skaters around the world on this one platform, and encourage them to develop as skaters and in their faith in order to become ethical leaders of tomorrow. The group wants to use Islam and skating to improve the lives of others in need.

Skater Uktis adds, “In Islam, we have a concept called ‘sadaqah jariah’ which means ongoing charity. Meaning even after you die, you’ve left a legacy, something that will continue to benefit people even after your death. This kind of charity in Islam is strongly encouraged. For example, you see a poverty-stricken community, you can give them food for a day or even a week. But teach them how to grow their own food or earn money, will feed them for a lifetime- this will allow them to sustain themselves independently with dignity. So through Skater Uktis, we hope to develop leaders who will look at developing and creating a positive social change within their societies long term.”

“This is a sisterhood run by the sisterhood, to serve the sisterhood”

Skater Uktis are looking to change the face of skateboarding, and what it can be. At the moment, they’re operating in 13 countries and are looking to further expand their reach.

As they put it to me: “We want Skater Uktis to be remembered as a movement that will last to the end of time. We want to generate ethical leaders through learning about Islam and skateboarding. They may seem disconnected, but in reality, both can be used as tools for self development.

“We want to see our members take up space in politics, community development work, activism, and much more in order to make the world a more peaceful and unified place. Regardless of anyone’s differences, In Islam, we are told to build bridges not burn them, and to be kind and caring and help those who are less fortunate than us regardless of their background. – We are also taught to put humanity first, so our end goal is to instil that into every person who comes into contact with us till the end of time.”

Photo Credit: Skater Uktis

The crew has endured a hindered start to their skate meetups due to the worldwide pandemic. Despite this, they are still very much looking forward to getting back up and skating when things go back to normality.

“We want Skate Uktis to be remembered as a movement that will last to the end of time”

The Uktis in their name derives from ukti or ukhti, an Arabic endearment term meaning “my sister”. It’s not just skating Skater Uktis do with their members. Once things are completely back to normal, they hope to encourage the sisters to get involved in volunteering at their local community projects, do charity work, soup kitchens, and hold creative events that teach all things Islam.

Sisterhood FC

What’s happened in the last few weeks, with the European Super League, has shown people all over the world that the so-called “beautiful game” has been corrupted by money, greed, and a clear unhealthy infatuation with the men’s game. It’s evident more spotlight needs to go to the female game and wider cultural issues surrounding football.

Yasmin Abdullahi is the founder of Sisterhood FC, a London football club, in what she believes to be the first football team for Muslim women in the UK.

“It’s evident more spotlight needs to go to the female game and wider cultural issues surrounding football”

So, what made Yasmin want to create something like this in the first place? It comes down to the mass misrepresentation that the Muslim community has in football. Yasmin wants the creation of this football club to be an inspiration.

She says, “I went to a Muslim event a few years ago, and the reason I went was because my university was in the area. Since I was in New Cross, I was like I’ve been at this place for two years, and I don’t know anyone from my background, or that’s Muslim – I went in order to connect with girls that I could relate with. They asked me to introduce myself, and for me, it was so casual, I did not think I was saying anything crazy.”

Yasmin adds, “I was like, my name is Yasmin. I do education studies. Then I told them I was on the girl’s football team at Goldsmiths University. All those Muslim girls’ faces dropped. They gasped. They couldn’t believe what I was talking about. For me, it was seeing that shock in their faces. Whether it’s being a girl or even being Muslim, I did not care. Nobody can stop me from playing football or any sport for that matter. Seeing their faces so shocked and having them ask me to train or coach them was massive. Honestly, in that moment, I was like I can create my own team and do something for my community.”

“Honestly, in that moment, I was like I can create my own team and do something for my community”

 

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The reaction she got from this moment was overwhelming for Yasmin, who was in total awe of the brands that were reaching out to her. She added, “I did not anticipate the reaction. I just thought I was doing something that was a little bit of fun with a few girls. If it wasn’t for covid, then our progress would’ve been out of this world because it got recognition so quickly, and it was hard for even me to accept. Before I knew it, I was getting recognised by Adidas, and they wanted to do a campaign. I had people messaging me to do documentaries, and I was like, what’s going on?”

“I started the team in 2018, and by 2019 we were already on the maps. Everyone sort of knew us, and the group was growing at a rate that I could not anticipate. I remember in January 2020, I had back-to-back meetings with these people that wanted to make stuff about us. I had Snapchat, Copa 90, and the BBC, all of these people I was having meetings with, and then the pandemic hit and covid meant we couldn’t meet up, so the rest of 2020 went quiet.”

The past few weeks have been eventful, to say the least, for Yasmin, with her club, Sisterhood FC, striking a sponsorship deal with Puma.

Working with top name brands like this enables the club to take their craft and message to the next level, and it means Sisterhood FC have longevity in the game and beyond.

Yasmin said, “I was like, alright, this is what I’ve been working for because I don’t have kits for the girls. I don’t have boots or football equipment for them. The way we play football is I find a park, and we just make goals with our belongings. It’s literally the epitome of grassroots. It doesn’t put people off. They still come and still think it’s amazing, and it’s not even at a level where it’s professional or whatever. So for me, when Puma was interested, I was like, that’s fine, but this is what I need from you guys, and they were like, no worries, we will help provide that for you.”

 

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“So for me, when Puma was interested, I was like, that’s fine, but this is what I need for you guys, and they were like, no worries, we will help provide that for you”

However, getting brands involved is only solving one crux. Changing football is a task out of Sisterhood FC’s hands – they need help from people in power, from the broadcast giants to the league officials. The respect has to be on the same level as it is for the men’s game.

Yasmin said, “It still makes me so sad that here we are in 2021, and you see these football shows that people like Chunkz and Yung Filly do, and you see them doing content on professional men players. There just isn’t the same level of respect for women who are pros. They don’t have that.”

She adds, “How is it fair? All they need is exposure and to be on the right platform. If they actually recognised women footballers, anyone for the Lionesses or anyone who plays for Chelsea and Liverpool, if they gave them the same level as exposure they do in the men’s game, then they will get women footballers to the level where they have mad followings and are able to reach more people. I was talking to Puma and was saying how is it fair. A company like Footasylum will work with Puma and get characters like Chunkz and Filly and use male footballers to make content for young kids. I keep thinking, how is it 2021, and we are yet to have the female version for that.”

 

Photo Credit: Sisterhood FC

Chunkz and Yasmin have strong affiliations when it comes to Somalia. Yasmin was born in the country, with Chunkz also having Somalian origins. The YouTuber is much more than an online personality. He has become an influencer who has fragile young minds tuning into his uploads every week. He will only keep getting bigger and hopefully use his status to elevate the women’s game. Like Yasmin, who has a team of girls who look up to her for inspiration and guidance, both of them have strong messages to share.

“When it comes to boys in the Somali community or even the Muslim community, It’s hard for the parents to believe in them that much where they think they can make football as a career. They think it’s about education. They don’t want to go through all the trouble of us getting here just to kick a ball about when you can focus on education,” Yasmin tells me.

“Look at what Chunkz is doing. Nobody thought someone in our community could be doing what he does. That’s why he has this mad following because it’s like everyone is so shocked that he broke the mould and broke the stereotype. So, to see Chunkz doing well, I’m so happy for my brother. On top of that, he has made a difference in so many kids’ lives. Before they wouldn’t be thinking that they can get into TV work, before it would not even be a dream or a thought, they wouldn’t think about it unless they saw Chunkz.”

“They don’t want to go through all the trouble of us getting here just to kick a ball about when you can focus on education”

YouTube stars can only do so much, of course. Change has to come from the governing bodies that rule over football. It was only seven years ago, for example, that FIFA decided to lift a ban on players wearing hijabs.

Yasmin says, “They honestly have no excuse, it’s so sad to see – the ultimate level of what football can be, for them not to accept people is so mind-blowing, but this is what I’m here to do. I’m here to make a difference. By letting Muslim girls know that if they want to become professional footballers, then they can. I would love to be the first person to help the first hijabi player to join the Lionesses or any other team for that matter.”

 

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A hijabi player has never played for the England Women’s team. This was a massive driving force behind the creation of Sisterhood FC. Yasmin wants to inspire every one of her girls by showing them that they can change the narrative once and for all.

Each training session or match Sisterhood FC takes part in is one boot step in the right direction of making this happen. She adds, “For me, five years is too soon when it comes to seeing a girl wearing a hijab playing for England. Maybe ten years, that’s attainable, but five years means that there is a Muslim girl already into football, and she has been getting that help and support, and I doubt that. But ten years is a much more realistic target.”

“I would love to be the first person to help the first hijabi player to join the Lionesses”

But what about in the here and now for Sisterhood FC and Yasmin Abdullahi? Well, this is a football team with aspirations, and it doesn’t want to stay grounded in one location. Currently, they are only operating inside London. Although this is something Yasmin plans to change in the very near future.

“My idea for a franchise is to make it accessible for my girls. When I say that this is my passion, I generally mean it. It doesn’t matter if I’m making money out of it all. When I think about my organisation, the happiness I get from the difference I’m trying to make, that alone is something I’m alright with. Getting to that level of recognition where universities know about Sisterhood FC or whether it’s different communities like inside of London or outside is key.

She finally adds, “Even in my own country back home in Somalia. I would love to go back and start a women’s team. Even though they have one, they aren’t getting the support that they want. I think FIFA said that they don’t even support Somalia. FIFA gives money to every country in the world that gets involved inside the organisation. Apparently, my country is too dangerous for them to give them any sort of help and support. But my country is coming back up it’s getting better, the last five years has seen a dramatic amount of changes. So if they are too scared to go there, then I would be more than happy to go over to Somalia, and they can use me to help them. I’m not too scared to go back to my own country.”

These inspirational women are stopping at nothing to achieve their dreams. All of them, it would seem, possess a passion and dedication that knows no bounds. Wherever they achieve their success, one thing remains clear – they are all well on their way to inspiring the next generation.

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For more from our England Issue 

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