By Sarah Desabrais
Before she was a contributor to The Globe and Mail and Vice and the author of her blog, Tales from a Hijabi Footballer, Shireen Ahmed was a frontline worker at a settlement agency for newcomers to Canada. Today, she’s a freelancer and sports advocate who has made her mark in an overwhelmingly male and white field. A regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a site for women-identifying writers to critique representations of Muslim women in mainstream media, Ahmed won a 2016 Best of Contemporary Writings award from the Goalden Times, an online football and culture publication, for her reportage on the media’s poor coverage of sexual assault in football.
For Ahmed, sports are more than scoreboards and sweat — they’re a lens on the world’s tensions, relationships, and politics. She’s written about myriad topics, including the Paralympics, the politics of fasting in football, and her own family’s experiences on the no-fly list.
We sat down with her to talk about getting started, the politics of games, and the need for inclusion in sports journalism.
Why write about sports with such a distinct, socially minded stance?
I’m a believer that sport can be used as a vehicle, a tool to empower. It’s such a common language, whether you play or not. It can be used as bridge-building, as cultural understanding. You take a ball anywhere, you automatically get 22 people who can play soccer.
It’s something very small — a couple of soccer balls and a gym in the winter time.
I worked with a group of Syrian refugees last winter, when they were hosted at the Toronto Plaza Hotel, running a session for kids to play soccer every Wednesday. These kids had survived trauma and PTSD, and it was a way of literally seeing children blossom, and engage, and sweat it out. They played each pick-up game in this gym of a mosque like it was the World Cup final. There were tears, there was frustration, there were arguments with me, who was not really an official ref, but just sort of managing. For a situation that someone might construe as bleak, it was wonderful. And I was very honoured to be a part of that.
What can be done to improve the way women are represented in sports? Right now in Canada, we don’t have specialized websites for women, like ESPNW. We don’t have The Undefeated, or The Shadow League, which are places specifically for people of colour. We don’t have Racialicious. So the wider mainstream Canadian media is supposed to be representative of all of Canada, and it’s not.
Why did you feel it was important to start talking and writing about your experiences?
I’m a soccer player. Around 2012, there was discussion of the FIFA hijab ban being lifted. I thought it was an interesting story. When I’m on [the pitch], there’s a lot of attention and focus given to me because of what I look like and what I’m wearing. I am the only Muslim woman in my league who’s identifiably Muslim, because of my hijab. I started telling those stories on my blog and some other sites. At that point, I didn’t charge, because I didn’t think that anyone would pay me to write about Muslim women in sports.
Sports have always been so political. Exactly. Using sport as a tool of resistance has always been there. An early example of an athlete fighting fascism was a Turkish fencer — a Muslim woman named Halet Çambel — who was at the Berlin 1936 Olympics. She was at the Games where Jesse Owens won the 100-metre and Hitler was enraged. She was invited to meet him and refused because she disagreed with him politically. This is one of the first times we see an athlete using their platform like this. So it’s been there. We just don’t always hear about it, because there’s been a tremendous whitewashing of history.
We hear about Muhammad Ali, but we don’t like to talk about how he was anti-imperialist, because it makes people uncomfortable.
It’s not new to use sports as a vehicle for exchanging ideas and thoughts, but it’s much more common.
How do you carve out success in a crowded, homogeneous field?
You have to fight really hard to get your foot in the door and then prove how great you are. People ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them: “I write pitches and get rejected.” But I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had some really cool mentors and that people have given me a chance, and said, “Let’s see what you can do.” What ends up happening in sports writing is you create ally-ships with other women. I try to surround myself with people that identity as female or non-binary or femme-presenting. I feel safer in those spaces.
What is it about your perspective on issues that is so distinct?
This is not my first career. I started off working frontline in social services, so that experience I always take with me. What does justice look like? What does inclusion look like? What does fairness look like? I’m not looking at statistics and match reporting only. I’m not looking at trade rumours. I’m always looking at, how does this a affect human beings? How does this affect Canada? How does this a affect us globally? How can sports be used to benefit us in a holistic way?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Desabrais is the display editor at the RRJ.