Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Richmond Women RFC rugby player Zainab Alema: I’m a mother, a wife, a woman, black, Muslim.

Posted on 4 April 2022 by Arif Islam

Arif Islam speaks to Zainab Alema about being a Black Muslim rugby player, the ‘honour’ of playing with the hijab & one day representing England.

Zainab Alema via Instagram: Zeealema

Under the thin cloth padding of a scrum cap Zainab Alema adjusts her hijab, a head covering many Muslim women choose to wear to practise their faith, she is a Richmond Women RFC rugby player.

For many, the perception of rugby is that of an elitist masculine sport where ethnic minorities are few and far between. Zainab Alema did not get the memo.

Zainab ‘Bulldozer’ Alema is a British Ghanaian Muslim. The ‘Bulldozer’ is a fitting nickname, smashing barriers and stereotypes alike not only for herself but future generations of women.

Getting into Rugby

Alema’s love for rugby is nothing out of the ordinary. As with most athletes it was love at first sight with her touching a rugby ball at the age of 14 during a PE session and not looking back since.

She loved the physicality of the game and saw it as a way to express herself.

“Rugby has taught me the value of teamwork and resilience.

“The fact that you can be in a team with people from various backgrounds has helped me to learn how to connect with people who I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to connect with.”

Alema playing for Richmond Women. Credit to ollie_tycer

If Alema’s answers were anything to go by, passion and interest are non-factors for why more Muslim women are not taking up the sport. As Alema highlights:

“I think there are many factors including perceptions, lack of accessibility, cultural restraints etc.

“If you don’t see people that look like you in a certain space, you’re less likely to be in that space as you may feel you don’t belong there.”

Credit to ollie_tycer

She adds while the women’s game has made strides it still has a long way to go: “There are many perceptions about rugby, with it being a male dominated sport.

“You get some people looking down on the women’s game as if to say women can’t and shouldn’t be playing rugby which is far from the truth.”

It is clear Alema is a headstrong, driven individual and when asked about her career aspirations her response continued in that vein.

Embed from Getty Images

“I want to make history by being the first Black Muslim woman to play rugby for England.

“I hope to inspire not only the next generation but people who are afraid to dream big and anyone who can relate to me in anyway.”

The Richmond women’s forward is clearly aware of the weight of responsibility on her shoulders and does not shy away from it. She adds: “I’m a mother, a wife, a woman, black, Muslim.

“I believe my identity covers a broad range of people so hopefully by following my passion I can empower those that hear my story or follow my journey.”

The obstacles for Muslim players

A major obstacle for ethnic minorities and Muslims particularly is a perceived cultural barrier. Alema recalls her experiences of ‘rugby culture’.

“I struggled in the beginning, but it was more of an internal battle. As I didn’t see anyone that looked like me.

Instagram via zeealema

“It was hard enough not seeing many black girls playing but on top of that I would be the only one wearing a headscarf.”

Alema’s struggles on such issues are something many Muslims across the country are all too familiar with, not just confined to rugby.

“I wasn’t sure how to be me a Muslim rugby player, how do I stop my hijab from coming off during a game, how do I make sure I keep up to date with my prayers?

“Where do I get a sports hijab from? How do I keep the bond with my teammates whilst I don’t drink beers? All those things I had to think about.”

https://twitter.com/AlemaZainab/status/1411308296884080641

These perceptions attached to the game of rugby are a significant reason to the general lack of uptake amongst the British Muslim community.

While pub culture is a major part of British society and should be respected, it does not mean others who do not wish to partake cannot be accommodated for as Alema explains:

“I would advise my fellow Muslim sisters to be brave not to feel like they can’t voice out their concerns.

“Most of the time it’s about being open and honest with your teammates and coaches, its most likely a new experience for them having a Muslim on the team.

“Don’t be afraid to tell them what they can do to help your experience whether that be about the drinking, prayer spaces and privacy.”

It is clear Alema’s religion is an integral part of her identity. While some may see the hijab she wears while playing rugby as a hinderance she sees it as the exact opposite.

She said: “It means everything. It’s part of my identity. It’s an honour.

The visibility of me playing rugby whilst wearing hijab I hope will encourage many other Muslim women to get involved in the game.”

Neither her religion nor her sport is compromised through her choice to wear the hijab. Alema is thankfully in a position where she does not need to choose between one or the other.

In France however, senators have voted to ban hijab in sports competitions meaning people like Zainab could never compete nor get into the sport in the country.

She said: “I think it’s disgusting and an infringement of human rights.

“What happen to freedom of religion, our community is already marginalised and struggle with participation in sports? This will only push us even further away.”

Removing the obstacles

Unfortunately, obstacles like this will hinder the progress of Muslim women in sports but Zainab hopes to combat this through the ‘Muslimahrugby’ project which aims to get more Muslim women into rugby.

Instagram via muslimahrugby

“I just want to connect with as many Muslim women as possible that also love rugby.

“It’s a platform to celebrate our love for our faith and sport. It’s to let people know that although we are a minority we are there. I’m hoping it will encourage many more Muslim women to get into rugby.”

Zainab ‘Bulldozer’ Alema does not seem to be slowing down in her attempt to rise to the top in the women’s game whilst being unapologetically herself.

Rugby is a sport which was traditionally viewed in Britain as white, elitist and masculine. Individuals like Zainab Alema are showing that is no longer the case.