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November 07, 2014

The Beautiful Game

By Shireen Ahmed,  Pakistani-Canadian Footballer, Activist, and Blogger at http://footybedsheets.tumblr.com/

Someone once asked me whether my writing and activism was fueled by over 30 years of playing soccer (football). The answer: most definitely.

Like many other athletes, I use my sport to exercise, enjoy myself, and challenge myself. It’s also a way to seek clarity and stress-release. The soccer pitch is a place I am welcome and the ball is a non-judgmental, constant companion.

There is no greater rush than streaking across the field to pass or receive and then blast the ball into the back of the net. I’m supported by my teammates and inspired by their skills. I love how we communicate wordlessly. I am so grateful I’ve been able to experience the joys of sport.

The large-scale politics around women in sport not only affect me personally but also are the focus of my activism. My advocacy for women to be able to participate safely and wholly in sports comes from research, study, and perhaps most poignantly, lived experience.

I’ve been racially abused on and off the pitch, I’ve been harassed during play by bigoted-men from the stands, I’ve been excluded from the sport I loved for a period of time due to an unfair ban on hijab.

For a while I attempted to join other sports—with some success—that are more accepting of a Muslimah athlete. But I’ve managed to survive and keep playing.

Throughout all those challenges, I maintained strong ties to football. I joined community leagues, I coached, I volunteered—I did what I could to stay connected. I watched every match I could—eagerly participating in friendly banter in pubs, living rooms—wherever the game was on.

Despite many campaigns, movements, and huge steps for the advancement of women in sport, I’m still flummoxed by people who insist that women need to live, look, and identify a certain way in order to participate.

I recognize I’ve had access to equipment, education, and safety. That drives me to advocate for women and girls who can’t access sports readily.

The world of sports (particularly football) is dominated by men. The presence of women as journalists, competitors, administrators, mentors, coaches, and even as fans is essential.

I am fortunate to have always been unconditionally supported by family and have navigated everything from negativity from my community to board members dismissing my right to play to those telling me to “retire in my old age.”

I am a few years shy of 40, but this footballer is far from done.

I take my roles and responsibilities as a player very seriously: to foster safe spaces and encourage women to join the beautiful game. I use my position as an activist-journalist and community advocate to write and speak about challenges relating to women, pushing for accessibility and inclusion.

In order to prove intolerance is unacceptable we must be vocal. Sexism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and parading socio-economic privilege have no place on the pitch. These vices cast shadows on the beautiful game. Marginalization of potential contributors and great athletes of any sport is unfair.

Most personally, I use my role as a mom to show my sons that I not only support their sister as equally as I do them, but that sport should be open to everyone

A Pakistani-Canadian hijab-wearing Mom, tackling, sliding, passing, and shooting is completely normal to them. That is how we change the system of sexism.  

I intend to be active as long as my body will let me. And I intend to continue supporting other campaigns that push the boundaries of what society considers acceptable for women.

My panel at this year’s Human Rights Summit, “Not Just a Game: Can Sports be a Vehicle to Advance Human Rights?” will be a great conversation on the intersection of athletics and human rights. My love for the game has shown me what a powerful force sports can be, and I look forward to brainstorming together on how to use that force for good.