Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation works to eliminate inequality

Rimla Akhtar with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 2013.

Rimla Akhtar with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 2013.

It has been said that sports is the only true meritocracy left in this world.

Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King and Oscar Pistorius are held up as examples that the games we play are ultimately immune to the discrimination, mistreatment and biases against race, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability and religion that we see in every other societal structure. The only thing that matters in sports, so says the idealist, is whether or not you can play.

Rimla Akhtar knows how far that ideal is from the truth, and she is working at the forefront of a global movement to rectify some of the inequalities that plague sports from grassroots to the professional level.

Akhtar is the chair of the Board of Trustees for the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation (, a London-based charitable organization founded in 2001 to create opportunities for women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities to participate in sports — through playing, coaching, officiating and volunteering — without compromising their religious or cultural values.

In Dec. 2013, Akhtar won the Community Award at the 26th annual Sunday Times and Sky Sports Sportswomen of the Year Awards in London, an event celebrating the contributions made by athletes, coaches, administrators, community volunteers and inspirational female figures in sports.

Along with her professional accolades, Akhtar brings athletic credibility to the table as well. In 2001, she played on the British futsal team at the Muslim Women’s Games in Tehran, Iran. (Futsal is a five-on-five variant of soccer.) And at the 2005 Women’s Islamic Games, also in Tehran, Akhtar was the captain of the British futsal team.

Akhtar spoke recently with Ummah Sports via e-mail about the MWSF’s efforts to make sports, like the religion of Islam, more of an all-inclusive community.

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UMMAH SPORTS: What is your role in the day-to-day operations of the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation?

RIMLA AKHTAR: The vast majority of my time is spent overseeing the governance and operations of our charity whilst also developing relationships and educating the sports industry across the UK and internationally about our work and the needs of the BAME communities so that they too can achieve our objectives through their own work. This often involves a number of not-so-exciting but essential meetings and it’s always worth it when I see the great results at the end of day!

How many people work for the MWSF?

Currently we have one part-time staff member and over 20 volunteers who all contribute to the success of the MWSF.

Why is the MWSF necessary?

The MWSF is an extremely unique organisation that caters to the needs of extremely underrepresented communities. The facts show that these women and girls are often the most inactive of inactive individuals and so it is only right that we, from within the communities, drive the work to reverse the trend of inequalities in sport. We are yet to come across any other organisation across the world who is providing the services that we provide and so it is just as important that we exist to inspire others to replicate this work for their communities — this sharing of best practice and provision of support to others is an extremely important part of our work.

What are some of the main issues facing Muslim women who want to play sports?

The issues that Muslim women face are not very different to those of the average woman — we have found through our research and knowledge that most of the issues, such as lack of time, lack of money, lack of confidence, etc., are issues that most women face when it comes to sport. The vast majority of the issues can be overcome through careful consideration and planning. The atmosphere and culture are key and obviously providing a female-only environment ensures that all women feel comfortable whilst playing. We have a “no excuses” policy at the MWSF; if there is any reason that we are given for a woman not participating, we will remove it. This shows that you can overcome any of the issues.

Muslim Women's Sports Foundation Futsal Festival

Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation Futsal Festival

Is part of the MWSF’s mission to not only increase opportunities for Muslim women who want to play sports, but also get Muslim women interested in sports who may not already be interested?

Yes it is. We are not only educating the sports industry, but are raising awareness of the importance of sport within our community through various initiatives, including campaigns such as Who’s That Girl? and She Inspires Me.

Is another part of the MWSF’s mission to change the attitudes of men — Muslim and non-Muslim men — toward female athletes?

We want to open the minds of all within the community to the importance of sport and part of that includes female athletes. There are very few role models for Muslims to look up to and we need to celebrate those who are excelling, just as our faith asks us to, in their chosen field. That is why we at the MWSF celebrate the female role models within sport.

What are some of the MWSF’s recent projects?

The largest project, which has just come to an end, was called Born to Succeed. Born to Succeed started in August 2009 and involved four objectives:

* Regular structured training sessions in futsal and basketball in an all-female environment, including leagues and tournaments
* School outreach program
* Research into Muslim women’s participation in sport
* Support to individuals to become coaches and referees

Through providing the facilities and support that take into consideration the religious and cultural sensitivities of BAME women, the main benefits of the project were:

* Increased numbers participating in structured sports sessions as well as the number of teams developed
* Increased access to player pathways encouraging competition at higher levels
* Development of summer and year-round female leagues and tournaments
* The promotion of healthy living in the community through increased exercise and health related activities, thereby tackling obesity and enhancing mental health and well-being
* Increased availability of alternative social activities in mainstream society
* The promotion of cohesion and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, hence tackling inequalities
* A sound foundation and lasting role models for the future generations of BAME women

What is your favorite part of your job with the MWSF?

I love meeting and speaking with people about our love of sport and all that it can give us. Our events, such as our recent Futsal Festival, give me so much pleasure — knowing that we are making a real difference in the lives of women and seeing their lives develop and their journeys through sport is an amazing thing to witness. I just pray that Allah is pleased with our work.

What is the toughest part of your job?

We find that people do try and shut doors or don’t necessarily understand why they should support our work — that is within both the sports industry and the community. However, we are quite a persistent group of people who are determined to make a difference so we find that eventually we are heard more than before. It would be great if we didn’t have to go through the struggle to get there though!

Do you know of any similar organizations in the UK or around the world?

No, we aren’t aware of organisations of our size or with the outreach that we have. There are a number of local groups both in the UK and around the world that are forming as a result of their own passion for sport and because of the example that we have set.

What is your personal background in sports?

I have played sports from a young age — with two older brothers, it was bound to happen! I have always had a go at every sport put in front of me and have made most of the teams that I have trialed for, from school through the various levels to the British Muslim Women’s Futsal Team.

Reflecting on my love for sport and all that it can achieve for individuals and communities, it’s the fact that the sports field is where I have always felt an equal as a human and a place that has enabled me to develop into the person I am today that spurs me on to provide the same for others.

What do you see for the future of the Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation?

We have provided a sound foundation for BAME women’s sport and we have seen over the past 5 years how much the community has taken to sport. We have built up a fantastic network of individuals and organisations who are working in this field and we intend to support them and others to continue the momentum that has been generated to bring up the number of women and girls participating in sport. We want to use sport as a means for development and social change and inshaAllah we will see our community move forward through sport.

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