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Voices of the Game: Shireen Ahmed is a powerful advocate for women of color in sports

We interviewed Ahmed about her coverage of Muslim women in football.

Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Voices of the Game is a bi-monthly column that highlights writers with interesting perspectives from around hockey and sports in general.

I can count on one hand the number of Western sports writers who give time and attention to the plight of Muslim women who play sports, and one of the steadiest voices among them is Shireen Ahmed.

When is it impossible to separate coverage of sports from coverage of politics, especially when the politics are about, well, you? When you’re a Muslim-Canadian woman, and when you know you are one of the few people who feel an intrinsic and urgent mandate to speak out about these issues.

A Muslim woman who lives in Toronto (but yes, she is a Canadiens and Canadiennes fan), you’ll know Ahmed for her Twitter feed (@_shireenahmed_), which is a slow burn of all the things you suspect about world sports organizations but don’t want to hear. “Displacement of people for the FIFA #World Cup is not a new thing. It’s part of the vicious and violent history of this tournament,” Ahmed tweeted recently, for example. And she wrote another dry Tweet after Pamela Anderson was given preferential treatment at the World Cup, “I’m so pleased that FIFA is committed to securing special seating for famous partners of players. It’s not like they need to focus on other issues like sexism, racism or homophobia in football culture.” Truth.

You’ll also know Ahmed for her articles about women’s (non-American) football, and for celebrating the inclusion of hijabs in FIFA-sanctioned world tournaments.

Recently, there was a hate crime in Mississauga in which a Canadian man, Muhammed Abu Marzouk, was bludgeoned in the parking lot of a community center in front of his wife and children — to the point that he suffered brain hemorrhages — while the men who enacted the hate crime shouted racial slurs. In response to this, Ahmed tweeted her own intrinsic connection to this community, and about the direct way in which hate crimes impact her family and life. In a series of tweets, she wrote:

This is another occasion where I hate to have to remind folks, but it is necessary. Please get the women in the community self-defense training. This will save lives. If you don’t have sisters, cousins, aunts, Moms, daughters, pay for someone else. Three years ago, I took my daughter to a self-defense session and wrote this- after incidents of violent gendered Islamaphobia spiked in Toronto. As her mother, I had [to] ensure she had tools to save herself.

The most harrowing experience was having my 67 year-old Maman talk to me about training. She has lived in Canada since 1972, and only in the last few years felt that it is possible to be attacked physically. She has endured verbal attacks. But this is different. Fortunately she has the resources, and joined a gym and a personal trainer. Despite her arthritis and other medical issues, she is determined to keep healthy and strong. Motivating factor: being safe.

After suffering terrorism like this against her own community, it might have been tempting to bow to the pressure of mainstream publications and be silent, especially when her very identity marks her as prey to the hatred of people who don’t understand her, but Ahmed does not. She literally takes to the air to get her message out. She hosts the Burn it all Down podcast, where she joins Amira Rose Davis, Brenda Elsey, Lindsay Gibbs, and Jessica Luther in a weekly discussion of all things sports, politics, and women.

Ahmed took a moment to talk to us about her work.

Raw Charge: I have spent the week reading your articles at The Guardian and other places, and I love the powerful voice you give to Muslim women athletes. You covered the inclusion of women in hijab at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, especially highlighting Jessica Houara-d’Hommeaux and how she was portrayed by Nike.

The next WWC is arriving next year, and looking at the world, it’s hard to see much advancement in acceptance for Muslim women athletes. But this is a better question to ask you — what has changed most since the last Women’s World Cup, for the sport, and for the Muslim athletes?​​

Ahmed: ​The first Muslim woman in a headscarf played in a FIFA WC tournament in ​2016. It was a HUGE moment. It was the first time after the hijab ban that we saw footballers represented in every type of uniform: shorts, tights, long sleeves, regular kits, etc. I wrote about it for Bitch Media.

Since Ibtihaj Muhammad represented the USA at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the conversations about Muslim women in sports have exploded. Previously there was a disconnect. It is almost as if the participation of women from racialized and religious communities were normalized. Since then, the FIBA ban on hijab was also rescinded.

There are a lot more conversations about Muslim women in sports but the reality is that Muslim women need to be the ones spearheading those discussions. Recently, I was part of an incredible initiative called Muslim Women in Sports Network.

It is an organization that centers Muslim women in the discussions about us. We are activists, journalists, educators, advocates and athletes. And we are all Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds and also at various levels of religious practice.

Muslim women are not a monolith. Not all of us choose to cover. Not all of us have the same ideas about the world we inhabit. But we exist in systems of oppression and have experienced misogyny, racism, and gendered Islamophobia.

And we are the best people to speak about ourselves.

Raw Charge: I know that WWC will be held in France next year, a place notable for its intolerance of the hijab. What issues do you see arising from this venue for the sport, and what is being done to mitigate it?

Ahmed: ​I have always been interested in exploring the issues around the FFF and racism and xenophobia. Hijab is not permitted in France in professional or semi-professional domestic or recreational leagues. Thus far, I don’t know if any players from countries where women wear hijab will qualify for this tournament. We have to see.

But although the FFF doesn’t allow hijab, the World Cup 2019 will fall under FIFA guidelines and they permit hijab. So, France will have to obey the rules, however begrudgingly. I think continuing the conversations about it is imperative. I certainly intend to cover this and more stories that hit at the intersections of race and gender that will arise in women’s football.

Raw Charge: Rewinding a bit, what got you started on your path to write about sports, and what were the hurdles you overcame to get where you are?

Ahmed: ​I started writing about sports and racism because of my own experiences. I was annoyed and frustrated about how Muslim women and their stories were being written and consumed. This is not my first career so age and life experience helped a lot. There is a tremendous amount of pushback and also people (white, male editors) who are eager to overlook me and other PoC who have fresh ideas or diverse opinions.

They misunderstand that having a straight, white, able-bodied white guy publishing a piece on race or gender doesn’t rid the issue in sports media of sub-par hiring practices. This is something I speak of (and tweet about) quite often.

​I have been given a lot of support and encouragement but I am still hustling — like so many others. I have never been handed anything in my career. I have worked hard for every chance but am grateful at the platforms I get to share my work and my research.

The project the closest to my heart is the podcast I am a co-host of: Burn It All Down. I am so proud and excited about this. It is a place for me to reflect regularly, and share my opinions on everything in sports. Very often the intersections and the conversations about them are not only welcome but encouraged by my co-hosts.

This is probably some of the most important work I have ever done.

This also points to another issue: at BIAD, we don’t get paid. It is truly a labour of love. It would be lovely to be paid for what we work so hard for, and what we are so good at. This is another issue with the industry that women are used to.

We often work as freelancers, while the staff jobs and secure positions are given to mediocre white men. I hope it changes and hope that it does — in my lifetime.

Raw Charge: Heading back to your love of football, a question about the recently finished Men’s World Cup. What did you think of this year’s run? Any moments in particular that made you happy or annoyed? How was the officiating?

Ahmed: The moment that Alireza Bieranvand saved Cristiano Ronaldo penalty in the Portugal-Iran match was a highlight for me. I am not a CR7 fan.

Also, Senegal brought a lot of joy to the World Cup as did Colombia.

I was enamoured with Croatia and wanted to adopt Danijel Subašić by the end. My love for Ivan Rakitić is public (I’m a Barça fan) and respect for Luka Modrić is profound. Particularly because of the history of the country and the players.

This being said, I will humblebrag and say that while I have cheered for Les Bleus for years, in June I predicted a Croatia-France final.

It was based on my hopes and that final did not disappoint. It was riveting and everything I love about the beautiful game. Paul Pogba was outstanding and wondrous. I saw a quintessentially French team cripwalk and dab and celebrate. It was fabulous. I cried as I watched Kylian Mbappé get the young player award — and when Luka Modrić got the Golden Ball.

I was interviewed about the French team and race for Dave Zirin’s podcast.

This tournament already has me psyched for the 2019 Women’s World Cup! I am hoping to be in France next year — God Willing. My first love in WoSo has always been Canada women’s team obviously, but I also adore the French national squad. Louisa Nécib-Cadamuro is one of my all-time fave players. I saw her play at the 2015 QC. She has since retired but I still love that team. The Matildas are also on my radar...

Raw Charge: You’ve got me excited for the WWC too! Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today, and I’m looking forward to your coverage of it.

You can find Shireen Ahmed at the following places:

Twitter | Podcast

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