Shireen Ahmed on Mus­lim women in sports

Bat­tling the mis­con­cep­tions about Mus­lim women in sports

The McGill Daily - - Contents - Paniz Khos­roshahy The Mcgill Daily

Af­ter hav­ing brunch at Bagel Etc dur­ing her visit to Mon­treal last Fe­bru­ary, Shireen Ahmed sat down with The Daily to dis­cuss the ex­pe­ri­ences of Mus­lim women in sports and sports writ­ing. Hail­ing from Hal­i­fax, Ahmed is a Toron­to­based free­lance writer, sports ac­tivist and life­long soc­cer player. Many be­gan to fol­low her work dur­ing the 2016 Olympics, where her Tweets and ar­ti­cles of­fered a crit­i­cal anal­y­sis of the pol­i­tics be­hind the games.

Stroking her green neon socks, Ahmed said, “I ac­tu­ally tried to go on va­ca­tion to PEI [Prince Ed­ward Is­land] with my chil­dren [last sum­mer]. I thought, no­body is gonna want to talk to me. But I’ve been non­stop busy since Au­gust.”

Ahmed has also worked in so­cial ser­vices, us­ing sports as a ve­hi­cle to sup­port women and youth who have dealt with trauma and vi­o­lence. Her work has been fea­tured and dis­cussed in The Guardian, The Na­tional Post, The Globe and Mail, VICE Sports, Jezebel, es­pnw, Me­dia Di­ver­si­fied, Mus­limah Me­dia Watch and more.

Mcgill Daily (MD): You call your­self a sports ac­tivist. What does that mean to you?

Shireen Ahmed (SA): Ad­vo­cat­ing for equal­ity and so­cial jus­tice by means of sports and ad­vo­cat­ing for the in­clu­sion of Mus­lim and ath­letes of colour in sport. Ser­taç Sehlikoglu, cu­ra­tor of the Mus­lim women in Sports blog, coined the term.

MD: How long have you been play­ing soc­cer for?

SA: I’ve been a soc­cer player since I was five. I’ve al­ways played, I play in gramma league now to be hon­est. But my ex­pe­ri­ence was sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered when I chose to wear a head­scarf when I was 20 and play­ing for the Univer­sity of Toronto [...]. At the time, there was no for­mal hi­jab ban, but there was noth­ing in the rules to al­low me to play ei­ther. So I was left up un­of­fi­cially to the ref­er­ees. I suited up for a sum­mer sea­son in ‘98 and paid for twenty games and I was al­lowed to play three. I found that de­mor­al­iz­ing, hu­mil­i­at­ing and frus­trat­ing so I moved on to row­ing [which] didn’t have re­stric­tions on what you could wear.

MD: And you’ve been play­ing ever since?

SA: I have. I went back for­mally a few years ago. [Be­fore that] for a while I was play­ing pickup on an un­of­fi­cial league called Mus­lim Youth Soc­cer League which ac­tu­ally gave women a place to play. It wasn’t af­fil­i­ated with On­tario Soc­cer or Canada Soc­cer, be­cause [those fed­er­a­tions] fol­lowed the FIFA rules, and FIFA had un­til 2012 banned the hi­jab. But in July 2012, FIFA sent a memo to [its af­fil­i­ates] about a tem­po­rary lift­ing [of the ban]. And then I joined a league and the they let me play. [FIFA] for­mally lifted the ban in 2014.

MD: How did these ex­pe­ri­ences im­pact the work you do to­day?

SA: I started re­flect­ing on those ex­pe­ri­ences [as a so­cial worker and a soc­cer player], got my­self writ­ing [...].I started re­search­ing a lot about Mus­lim women in sport, pol­i­tics, his­to­ries and mis­con­cep­tions. I wasn’t re­ally happy with the way [this writ­ing] was be­ing done be­cause the land­scape of Cana­dian sports me­dia is very, very male and white… and let’s just say they lack a lit­tle bit of nu­ance. And I de­cided to do it my­self and here I am.

MD: We are in the prov­ince of Char­ter of Values… What are these bans like in Que­bec?

SA: In 2007, As­ma­han Man­sour, an 11-year- old soc­cer player from Ot­tawa, was re­jected from a tour­na­ment in Que­bec be­cause she wears hi­jab. [...] Her case went up to FIFA and this was the year that [hi­jab was of­fi­cially out­lawed]. How did they come to the con­clu­sion? Be­cause a bunch of guys just de­cided it wasn’t al­lowed. [In 2012,] with the tem­po­rary lift­ing of the ban, On­tario and BC were like, okay, wear hi­jab, it’s fine. The ban was lifted in March 1, 2014, and Soc­cer Canada and Soc­cer On­tario were very sup­port­ive. Que­bec was the last prov­ince and soc­cer fed­er­a­tion [to ac­cept the rul­ing] and [...] waited un­til [the ban] was for­mally lifted. Why? Be­cause in the en­tire world, there’s only one other fed­er­a­tion that doesn’t al­low head­cov­ers: [the soc­cer fed­er­a­tion in] France.

MD: What are the rea­sons given for these bans?

SA: To this day there’s not one piece of em­pir­i­cal data that shows that hi­jab has been to the detri­ment of a player or the op­po­nent. There’s none. I’ve looked for it ev­ery­where! Same with bas­ket­ball. There isn’t one piece of shred of ev­i­dence that a hi­jab that’s tucked into a kit has hurt any­one. Peo­ple have been hurt by jew­elry or long braids be­ing whipped into the face, but not a hi­jab.

MD: What do these bans look like for univer­sity ath­letes?

SA: CCAA [Cana­dian Col­le­giate Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion, the na­tional gov­ern­ing body of sports in Cana­dian col­leges] doesn’t ad­here to the in­ter­na­tional fed­er­a­tion rules, be­cause [univer­sity ath­letes] are am­a­teur level. For ex­am­ple, NCAA [Na­tional Col­le­giate Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion, gov­ern­ing sports in col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties in the U.S.] al­lows hi­jab. So FIBA [which has banned play­ers from wear­ing the hi­jab] doesn’t gov­ern NCAA so hi­jab is al­lowed, which is re­ally bizarre be­cause you had Di­vi­sion I NCAA bas­ket­ball play­ers like Bilqis Ab­dul- Qaadir not be­ing able to go pro be­cause of her hi­jab, so that was ter­ri­ble. In a new movie [ti­tled FIBA Al­low Hi­jab] she’s very vo­cal about how stressed she was, how painful it was to not be able to play be­cause bas­ket­ball means so much to her [...] I know this feel­ing be­cause when

Que­bec was the last prov­ince and soc­cer fed­er­a­tion to [ac­cept the end of FIFA hi­jab ban]. —Shireen Ahmed Writer and ac­tivist I’m not pre­tend­ing that I could’ve gone pro, but I’m say­ing that I didn’t have the choice. —Shireen Ahmed Writer and ac­tivist When I was told I couldn’t play be­cause of my hi­jab, it was tak­ing a piece away from me. —Shireen Ahmed Writer and ac­tivist

I was told I couldn’t play be­cause of my hi­jab, it was tak­ing a piece away from me. I played soc­cer most of my life and I’m not as good at soc­cer as she is in bas­ket­ball and I’m not pre­tend­ing that I could’ve gone pro, but I’m say­ing that I didn’t have the choice. My daugh­ter [who wears the hi­jab] works hard and will con­tinue to work hard be­cause she has an op­por­tu­nity to play soc­cer pro­fes­sion­ally, she’s seen it be done. She’s seen in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jor­dan just this past year, she’s seen them play.

MD: So how do you think uni­ver­si­ties like Mcgill bet­ter sup­port Mus­lim ath­letes?

SA: By bet­ter un­der­stand­ing the needs and re­quire­ments of stu­dents and not just for the ath­letes, for ev­ery­one who wants to be in­volved in sports. [...] How are we go­ing to el­e­vate sports for peo­ple? What can we do to reach out to more folks? You need to make your fa­cil­i­ties ac­ces­si­ble for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. For stu­dent ath­letes [in­clu­sion is] ev­ery­thing from di­etary re­quire­ments to train­ing in Ra­madan. A good model, a high school foot­ball team in Dear­born, Michi­gan, ma­jor­ity of play­ers are Mus­lim-lebanese, so they had their train­ing af­ter dark. And it’s not just nu­tri­tional sup­port, ath­letes of all in­ter­sec­tions need the sup­port they need to han­dle the cul­ture of sports, which in this coun­try is still very white. [Uni­ver­si­ties could en­sure] ath­letes of colour have they need to nav­i­gate those sys­tems.

MD: What are the big­gest bar­ri­ers to Mus­lim women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in sports? MD: And that brings us to role mod­els and ep­re­sen­ta­tion!

SA: For mus­lim women and women from eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties in this coun­try, from my re­search, the big­gest bar­ri­ers are ac­cess to equip­ment, fi­nan­cial sup­port, a sports cul­ture they’re not fa­mil­iar with [...] gen­eral toxic cul­ture of mas­culin­ity in sports. [Mus­lim women] have to bat­tle gen­dered is­lam­o­pho­bia [...] in sports. It can be a lot to han­dle. As far as Mus­lim girls go, [bar­ri­ers] can be any­thing from body im­age, doubt. Young Mus­lim women suf­fer the same tri­als and tribu­la­tions as any other young woman, like lack of sup­port from so­ci­ety to mixed mes­sages to iden­ti­fy­ing what an ath­lete looks like.

SA: Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is cru­cial and that’s why Ibti­haj Muham­mad [Black, hi­jab-wear­ing Mus­lim woman fencer on Team USA] is im­por­tant to so many peo­ple [...] Ser­ena Wil­liams is play­ing in a very white dom­i­nated field and con­quer­ing that field. I did a piece on Jeanne d’arc Girubuntu who is not a Mus­lim woman but she’s from Rwanda. She’s the first fe­male Black cy­clist from the en­tire con­ti­nent of Africa. All the other cy­clists are wealthy white women. These rep­re­sen­ta­tion open up doors and in­spire peo­ple. They re­ally make young women re­flect and think, I think I can have this, I love this, why not. I would love to see young mus­lim women break it into hockey. But even be­fore we get to Mus­lim women, Cana­dian Women’s Hockey League play­ers aren’t paid. So let’s be clear, it’s not as if the North Amer­i­can model is a bas­tion of free­dom for women in sports and ex­em­plary in equal­ity and fem­i­nism. Be­cause it’s not. The strong­est soc­cer team in the world, the Amer­i­can women, are not paid as well as the Amer­i­can men are for do­ing oneeighth as well. [...] Peo­ple new to this so­ci­ety may not want to throw their daugh­ters into some­thing that isn’t fair to be­gin with. Like how much of an up­hill climb?

MD: How about rep­re­sen­ta­tion in sports writ­ing?

SA: When I was grow­ing up in this coun­try, the one writer I looked to was Jan Wong, she is a for­mer writer for The Globe and Mail and is from Mon­treal, she is ac­tu­ally Chi­nese. I’m of Pak­istani de­scent, we don’t look any­thing alike! The rea­son I looked to her is be­cause she’s smart but also be­cause ev­ery­one else looked like Mar­garet Wente. Now you have peo­ple like [The Globe’s] Denise Balkissoon, Han­nah Sung who are bril­liant, VICE’S Man­isha Kr­ish­nan, but still the sports side is not as di­verse. There’s one per­son at the Toronto Star’s sport desk who is a per­son of colour, Mor­gan Camp­bell, he’s great, I know him, and yes we’ve had cof­fee. There’s so few of us do­ing this and we all know each other.

MD: I find that as a writer of colour, it’s often very hard to have my voice heard. What are your thoughts on that?

SA: In a lot of cir­cles in this coun­try, white peo­ple are the gate­keep­ers. And how does [re­sist­ing] that work in sports? You make your own space. I had a friend tell me, I’ve never been given a seat at the ta­ble. And my ad­vice is, build your own chair. By­pass that, get your work done [...]. You’re not gonna get in­vited. The way it stands par­tic­u­larly in Cana­dian sports me­dia, you’re not gonna get in­vited un­less you make noise and to make that noise you have to work hard, you have to stand by your stuff, have dili­gent edi­tors and publi­ca­tions that have your back.

The rea­son I looked to Jan Wong is be­cause she’s smart but also be­cause ev­ery­one else looked like Mar­garet Wente. —Shireen Ahmed Writer and ac­tivist I had a friend tell me, I’ve never been given a seat at the ta­ble. And my ad­vice is, build your own fuck­ing chair. —Shireen Ahmed Writer and ac­tivist

photo cour­tesy of Shireen Ahmed

Cour­tesy of Shireen Ahmed

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