Courtesy: The Telegraph - Sport‘As a hijab-wearing Muslim I had a few stares but I feel part of the Liverpool football family’20 APRIL 2018
Liverpool fan Dr Rimla Akhtar MBE’s first love was football, but as a Muslim lacked role models until she found the British Muslim Women’s futsal team. Now she promotes diversity and inclusion in the game
As the UEFA Champions League nears its conclusion, we are celebrating “what football has done for me”, how the beautiful game has broken down barriers and changed people’s and communities’ lives for the better. Here is Dr Rimli Akhtar’s story...
“Forbes announced a global list of influential women in sport and I was on it . It’s an absolute honour. It shocks me because I haven’t even got halfway to where I want to get.
“Football was where it began – it was my first love. I played for and captained the British Muslim Women’s Futsal Team into the 2000s. I was 19 when I played in the 2001 Women’s Islamic Games in Tehran, Iran, and then in 2005 I was captain.
“It was a wonderful experience for all of us – the honour of representing your country. That was my first leadership role.
“I was born in the 1980s in Barnet, north London. It was the height of racism and growing up in an area where we were the first non-white family to move in was particularly difficult. I was lucky in that I was protected by two older brothers but grew up feeling I wasn’t accepted in the society I’d known my entire life.
“I’m a massive Liverpool fan and I’ve travelled around the world watching them. We had posters of John Barnes, Ian Rush and Steve McManaman on our walls – they were covered with them.
“My brothers would play football outside our home with their friends. Being the only girl, you either joined them or got left out. My mum was supportive.
“I took up football at primary school. That was my first formal team. It was a mixed five-a-side team. I played in tournaments and we had an amazing time. I carried that with me when I went to secondary school in St Albans – I played for the East of England team at lacrosse and county cricket.
“I started wearing the hijab when I was about 10 years old . I felt like nobody judged me for that – all they cared about was how I performed on the pitch, so I was encouraged to try to be the best version of myself.
“I never felt like football welcomed people like me – I didn’t see anybody like me. There was an open trial in 2001 for the British Muslim Women’s futsal team but cultural and religious aspects make you who you are: I didn’t feel like I had the confidence to try out. My mum said: “You’re going. There’s no two ways about it.” I made the team. Suddenly I found a group of women who looked like me and felt like me.
“It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I started to go to games. Going to Istanbul for the 2005 Champions League final, being at the Atatürk, the whole experience was incredible. I turned to my brothers at half-time, at 3-0 down, and said: “No regrets about coming, let’s just enjoy it.” And then I was ecstatic after the penalties.
“I’ve just come back from Jordan, supported by the Football Association as part of the Equal Playing Field initiative. I played in a world-record game about an hour from the Dead Sea, which was the lowest ever match played under FIFA regulations.
“Ten days before that we had four football clinics across Jordan, involving more than 700 girls. We played at the Hippodrome, we played at the Seven Pillars site in Wadi Rum – amazingly iconic places. And Prince Ali allowed us to play football at Petra, which nobody gets to do.
“When I first said to my brothers that I wanted to go with them to games, they were hesitant because it was post 9/11 and they were worried about my safety – so was my mother. We decided that I would take off my hijab and wear a baseball cap and a scarf round my neck.
“For a number of years, that’s how I went to games. In 2005 I just turned to my brothers and said: “This is who I am. I want to wear my hijab.” I had a few stares but I would just ignore them and carry on. The worst I’ve had is a few comments from people questioning how I could have got a ticket – obviously in more colourful language – but I still feel like I’m accepted as part of the Liverpool family.
“I joined PwC as a chartered accountant and began a career in the City, but sport never left my side and I became chair of the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation in 2005. We started to focus on basketball and football to increase the presence of Muslim women in sport. Then the FA said we could learn a lot from us about engaging ethnic minorities in football – I sit on the FA council.
“We helped overturn the 2007 FIFA ban on the hijab; we fought that for seven years with colleagues across FIFA and the FA. It was a decision made by old white men who had no idea of the impact it would have on women wanting to play the game.
“Women from across the globe are coming together to support each other. For example, hopefully thousands of girls from across Jordan will start playing football. That for me is the true legacy.
Posted by Luca Ranocchiari