A few years ago, a friend of mine pulled me over at a conference I was attending on sports and politics. “Shireen, how do I get a place at the table? There is never a space for me,” he said. I stopped what I was doing and looked him squarely in the eyes: “Build your own fucking chair,” I replied. Yes, that sounds like the makings of a fabulous meme, but what happens when that chair is built and inserted? How do Muslim women and Women of Colour (WoC) get a chance to thrive and survive in an industry that doesn’t understand them? Men dominate the sports media industry. Although Men of Colour face serious prejudice and racist systems in hiring, the difficulty for women, and WoC especially, to thrive in the industry is far more- even if you get an opportunity and are able to get “place at the table” be it a job, a freelancing opportunity, or a contract. Much of advancement opportunity come from nepotism and networking. The world of sports is full of men: boardrooms are full of men, the Editor-in-Chiefs are men, and most major league coaches are men.
The reality of being a visibly Muslim woman in sports media is that in addition to getting to a “place at the table” (aka a job, role in an organization), there is no simple formula for creating space to amplify oneself. Simply getting access doesn’t mean that a person will be heard, or their valid critiques will be taken seriously. Particularly if they are a minority in that space.
I started writing in 2011 simply because I was frustrated with the lack of and terrible coverage of Muslim women in sport. Muslimah Media Watch was the first place that published my analyses and criticisms of media.
While my interest remains in Muslim women in sport and following their challenges and triumphs, partly because it is easy for mainstream media to not care, I also write and reflect on the intersections of race and gender in sport. I have experienced being discriminated against by the systems in sport and by fake allies, and have been sideswiped by toxic white feminism. This shapes my writing. It would disingenuous if I claimed it did not.
In 2014, Women’s Media Center published a report that declared that over 90% of sports media is made up of white, able-bodied, cishet men. This was specific to editorial and managerial roles but I think it extends beyond to every facet. There is so little representation of WoC in sports media that there are not even statistics about it.
This past few weeks, we have seen the arguably most prominent Black woman in sports media, Jemele Hill, be attacked viciously by Donald Trump – and then be suspended by her employer, ESPN for allegedly “violating their social media guidelines.”
Hill is a co-host for ESPN’s flagship show, SportsCenter. She is a strong advocate of her community (Hill hails from Detroit, Michigan) and is unapologetically Black. She is also unfailingly brilliant. She rejects the notion of “sticking to sports,” a notion the dudebro fraternity insists is critical to keeping sports media “objective.” This idea is designed to keep people of colour out of major outlets or from having large platforms. It infers that our life experiences inherently affect how we tell stories, and so we are incapable of being unbiased. We know this is bullshit.
Hill is definitely a person I have looked to as a mentor and as someone to aspire to. There are not very many women of colour who have a such a platform and who use their sensibility and passion to tell the truth. There are not many Muslim women writing about sports. Earlier this year, I was part of a roundtable for Sports Illustrated that highlighted the voices of Muslims in sports media. Out of the seven people who participated, there were only two women. I had connected Hebeeba Husain prior to this panel and I consider her a friend. There really aren’t many of us out there. The struggles we discussed ranged from severe online racial abuse- mine also coincides with horrifically misogynist and xenophobic commentary.
In the panel, I wrote freely about my frustrations with the industry. I feel like I should have done a follow-up about how the lack of support from other Muslim men.
Out of that group, only one of the men went on to support my work, follow me on Twitter and consider me a colleague. Arda Ocal invited me onto his podcast (called the A-Pod) while I was visiting New York City and we have since become friends.
I have always found that growing your circle might be a way to help with that. Part of dealing with the frustration and anger has been to reach out to other women and non-binary folk from marginalized communities. I have received tremendous support from other PoC and from friends in the LGBTIQ community. Solidarity and support mainly comes from these folks and from sincere allies.
The first time a colleague offered immediate support was after I published a piece on a famous football player being implicated in a rape case. A wonderful trans woman (now good friend) and fantastic writer, was managing the social media account when my piece went live. Katelyn was ready to help me fire back at people attacking my work – which had been edited by an amazing editor with a finetooth comb – mostly for legal purposes. She told me something very simple but it changed the way I think and the way I act as a writer: “I have your back.” As a woman in the margins and a freelancer, it has not been often that people have been ready to support me in this manner. Katelyn shared my writing and my work when it was overlooked. Sometimes I wondered why. She did not need to help out a Muslim Woman of Colour whose own community could be homophobic and transphobic. But she did. I continue to learn from Katelyn all the time. That lesson continues to help me as I move forward and how I can conduct myself justly as a Muslimah. I hope I can do right by the strong – yet unheard – voices within the sports writing community.
I have compiled a list of Women and Non-Binary People of Colour in Sports Media and I share it happily and eagerly. This is not paid work. And like many folks before me, it is just one voice trying to amplify others.
There are a few women, globally, who have made change and engineer brilliance at a grassroots level or behind the scenes. But compared to the dominating de-melanated male colleagues, it is still too few. I keep thinking about how we can show solidarity and support.
At this point in my journey, I might change my original answer from “build your own fucking chair” to “Let’s build a MUCH bigger table – and then move to a mansion.”