Last week as I perused through Twitter, an article in the Guardian caught my attention. It was on a young British-Somali woman in hijab playing soccer. The picture was captivating and I was eager to read the piece by Vivek Chaudhury. It was a story of a young woman who loves football, supports Chelsea FC and who plays for a club in London called Tuff FC, a community club by a faith-based organization that promotes interfaith relationships through athletic development.
Immediately, this line caught my attention: “But instead of travelling to Syria to marry an Isis fighter, Iqra decided to turn up for football training.”
The juxtaposition of the words definitely bites. Using the narrative of a vulnerable Muslimah who chose football – instead of giving into the constant reminders that flying away to Syria to be married into a brutal and inhumane military extremist regime is an effective way of garnering attention.
Britain’s most famous pastime and passion– some might even call it a religion, is soccer. And yes, there is a place for Muslims.
For it to be used as a vehicle to work with youth is very common. A very close friend of mine (waves at the badass @sanaa_mq) is the club captain at FBB Warriors and they encourage women to come out and play in a safe space. It fosters a sense of camaraderie, accomplishment and community.
Sport can be used as a vehicle to empower, encourage and support women of colour and Muslimahs. (See my blog www.footybedsheets.tumblr.com).
But to report that football can be used to prevent young Muslim women from running off to marry ISIS fighters? I had a few (read: many) concerns with the piece. Not least that Chaudhary is inferring that being a footballer was correlated to being British. Absurd considering that it is the most played sport in the entire world.
The entire premise of his piece seemed doubtful and disingenuous.
Soon after Chaudhary’s article was published, a person who identified themselves on Twitter as Iqra Ismail’s brother (@youknowitsayoub) criticized the piece.
Turns out that the author completely mislead Iqra during the interview and this young woman was under the impression that she was speaking about football. It was not made clear that he would be using her to make a link with ISIS recruiting young women. Understandably, the family was not terribly impressed with the piece. Perhaps, they wanted a retraction or an apology. Neither of which occurred.
My concern was first about Iqra Ismail. Was she OK? Was she furious? Would she still love football? How does one recover from being used as a pawn in a disingenuous attempt to get media attention? The story was not fabricated, Iqra was directly quoted. But certain aspects were certainly embellished and her statements were misused.
For example, the number of “10 youth being diverted away from the temptation of jihad ” is ridiculous, considering the entire club does not have more than 50 kids of various faiths. This would also imply that all young Muslims are at risk from such ‘temptations’. An assertion that is ludicrous.
Secondly, that Chaudhary is using the photograph of a young, black identifiably Muslim woman is expected. Pictures of shrouded women are often props when discussions of ISIS occur in mainstream media.
I write about old tropes that are used when writing about Muslim women. Interestingly, and perhaps annoyingly, creating a correlation between sport saving young Muslimahs from becoming wedded to extremists is a new one. I have become accustomed to journalists using examples of Muslim girls and women engaging in sport to “shatter stereotypes” or “challenge the patriarchy”. But never have I seen football being used to combat the institution of marriage to misguided fighters. I am fairly certain the world was better-off without it.
Another problem with Chaudhary’s depiction is that he offers two options for young women, engage fully into sport while identifying as a Briton or succumb to ISIS recruiting. Because there is nothing in between. The dichotomy of these two is frightful. And untrue.
Football is a way to provide a safe way for political expression and rally around issues social justice. Football Beyond Borders is one such organization. (*waves and blows kisses to Sanaa again*) Tuff FC’s mandate is to advocate for for awareness around gender equality in many cultures.
It might have been helpful for Chaudhary to research this before writing his piece.
There are tremendous movements in the UK working towards creating change for women in sport; in coaching, administration and in advocacy. Rimla Akhtar is one such woman. Rimla is a consultant and advises various Sports Federations on how to create a more inclusive environment for Muslim women. She has lobbied hard to ensure that strategies are implemented and have merit.
“In the long term, it’s about making the sports environment more inclusive. That’s what’s lacking right now. We need to get an inclusive mindset as well as action on the ground,” Akhtar says.
It is safe to assume that Chaudhary’s piece does little to create an environment of trust around young Muslimahs in sport. How are clubs legitimately supposed to support programs for young Muslim women when journalists are reporting that they are always in danger of falling victims to recruiting strategies by the world’s most notorious violent thugs?
I reached out to Chaudhary to discuss his piece and perhaps explain his intention. It might shock you, dear readers, as it shocked me, to know that he replied. Chaudhary was very polite. He told me through a series of brief direct messages that he did explain the purpose of his piece to Iqra. In fact, he was not the only one to do so. Tuff FC was aware as well. Chaudhury told me that he was very surprised at the reactions as he was advised there were no problems with the piece whatsoever. The club should know better. That they didn’t recognize that the theme of the piece was potentially inflammatory and unfair to their young player is extremely worrisome.
He also said he was not aware that the family wanted to have the piece pulled. The situation did not escalate.
In fairness to Chaudhury, I don’t agree with the angle of theme but if he was encouraged to go ahead by Tuff FC, then he would submit his piece- as any journalist would. As I would have.
I am weary of and disappointed in a system that doesn’t protect young, female players or perhaps their best interest. A little bit of publicity for a football club is not worth humiliating a player. Ever.
I don’t expect journalists or teams to share the same views as me, but I demand better for Iqra Ismail. And I hope she keeps playing.