Promoting social inclusion through sport
People say I wear a number of hats. I wear a number of hijabs, I always say.”
Rimla Akthar is the first Muslim woman to sit on the English Football Association Council. She chairs the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation, is a chartered accountant and holds a number of other positions. She captained the British Muslim Women’s football team in 2005 and in 2013 was given the Community Award at the Sunday Times and Sky Sports Sportswomen of the Year Awards. Speaking at the Peace and Sport Regional Forum in Rhodes on 18 October 2018, she explained how she got to that point – her “journey in sport, in life, in inclusion”.
Rimla was born in London in the 1980s. As a Muslim, it was a difficult time to grow up. There was a high level of racism in the UK and she and her family had a lot of issues as a result. She spent those formative years trying to understand how people perceived and judged her. But she feels lucky that she had two older brothers who looked out for her. It was them who got her into sport, and that experience had a big impact on her:
“It was interesting to me that I found space where nobody seemed to care about the colour of my skin, about the fact that I’m a girl, about this piece of cloth around my head. All they seemed to care about was my ability on the pitch. I was accepted.”
Rimla has carried that feeling throughout her life and it enabled her to grow in confidence. She saw how sport could contribute to personal and societal development and wanted to use it as a tool for solidarity, respect and peace. When she became the chair of the Muslim Women in Sport Foundation in 2005, she had ambitions to do just that. She wanted to turn sport from a predominantly white, middle class, exclusive space to one that is more vibrant, dynamic, diverse and inclusive.
That was challenging. On the one side, you had the UK’s Muslim community. It is not a mono-culture; it is a diverse group containing all sorts of opinions and ways of being. On the other side was the sports industry – “a very exclusive, very rigid space”.
Rimla had to bring different sides together to allow people to be part of the community and feel the benefits that she had from sport. Some people were skeptical of Rimla going against the norms, but the majority of people in the Muslim community were supportive of what she did. She was also able to persuade the sports industry to engage, bringing them along to join the foundation in that journey.
Along with Equal Playing Field, in March 2018 the foundation set a world record for the lowest football match ever played, in Jordan. Rimla points out that the girls in that match wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do what they’re doing without inclusion:
“If someone feels inadequate in life they can go to the sports field and feel they have something to give to the team, something to give to themselves. They carry those fields of play metaphorically throughout life, they create their own fields of play throughout life and they raise themselves up through sport. That for me is why sport is a wonderful tool for peace, solid respect.”