- “I’ve never had a Muslim player on my team before”, Iqra’s coach once told her
- “My team-mates would say: ‘Iqra, aren’t you hot’ and I would have to stop and explain ‘It’s not about that; it’s a religious thing.’
For Iqra Ismail, playing football was not only a sport that she loved and wished to practice. It was a challenge that she had to address at a very young age, The Telegraph reported.
When she was only 14, the Somali Muslim girl living in the UK was handed out her first kit. She pulled her coach to one side telling him she could not wear shorts.
“Oh I’m sorry,” came the coach’s slightly panicked reply, “I’ve never had a Muslim player on my team before.”
“Immediately I felt like this other, this outsider,” said Iqra, reflecting on the incident five years on. “My team-mates would say: ‘Iqra, aren’t you hot’ and I would have to stop and explain ‘It’s not about that; it’s a religious thing.’ Sometimes it would be: ‘Iqra, do you not have any water?’ and I would have to explain, ‘It’s Ramadan so I’m fasting.'”
This was not the only battle she had to go through in her quest to play football.
One club she was trying to join turned her down four years in a row, while a move to the United States to join a club that had accepted her was vetoed by her mother because of perceived anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president.
“That was shattering for me at that age,” she said.
“Women’s football wasn’t quite there yet in this country at that point and America was the place to be to get to where you want to be in your career.”
Lack of Understanding
Though a lack of understanding has shadowed Iqra throughout her time playing football, she is not giving up on her passion for the game.
“It really was resilience that got me to this point,” she said.
“If you let something beat you the world’s still going to keep turning. It’s up to you to pick yourself up and keep pushing for what you want because no one else is going to get it for you.
“I started playing in primary school out of defiance. I think I was told that girls can’t play and I said: ‘Well, I’m going to play then.’”
Safe Space for Girls
Fed up of feeling like she did not belong in all the teams she joined, Iqra dreamt of one day creating a space where women like her would feel accepted.
At just 19 years old she set up NUR Football Club. About 15 people turned up to the first session in late June; by week four, that number had almost trebled.
“It was surreal. For people to be coming up to me and saying: ‘This is what I’ve been looking for’,” she said.
“I see myself in every single player, they’ve got that drive, that willingness, they’ve finally found that home.”
Rimla Akhtar, the chair of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation who also sits on The FA Council, has revealed that a growing number of British Muslims have been joining football sport thanks to the increase of Muslim role model footballers like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.