Were Rimla Akhtar fighting her cause on the sports field, the odds of winning the game would not look good.
As chair of the UK’s Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation (MWSF), her mission is both simple, and daunting: to promote diversity in British sports, an arena overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
But the 32-year-old, who was recently awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors list, is certainly scoring goals – despite being far from declaring overall victory.
Akhtar, from Harrow in north-west London, is not under any illusion about the lack of representation of women and ethnic minorities in British sport.
Aside from her role at the MWSF, she was the first Muslim woman to be elected a member of the Football Association (FA) Council, which helps decide policy for the game’s governing body in England. Even Greg Dyke, the FA’s own chairman, said last year that the council is “overwhelmingly male and white” – something Akhtar, as a Muslim woman born to Pakistani parents, is all too aware of.
“Sport in general, not just in football, is really lacking in representation right from the grassroots through to the elite level, from the administration to the boardroom,” she said.
“Something like 3% of governing bodies of sport have black, Asian, minority and ethic representation on their boards. But if you are all white, male, how can you realistically expect to understand the needs of women, or understand the needs of ethnic minority communities? You can’t have inclusion without representation.”
Akhtar spoke to Al Arabiya News in a café in Westminster, London, where later in the day she had a meeting with government officials. Wearing a smart white suit and hijab, the well-spoken Akhtar certainly cuts a professional figure.
Though a chartered accountant by profession, Akhtar gave up her job in the City of London to concentrate full-time on her work in sports and inclusion – issues that surfaced during her childhood.
As a teenager growing up in London, Akhtar and her two brothers – who were born to Pakistani immigrants – fell victim to both physical and verbal racist attacks. It was only on the sporting field that she found acceptance.
“For me personally, sport was just an area where I felt like I was accepted – nobody cared about the colour of my skin, that I wore a piece of cloth around my head, the fact I was a girl. All they cared about was how well I could play,” she said.
“Absolutely every team there was at school I would try out for. Whether I knew how to play it or not, I would go and try out, just because I loved – and still love – sport.”
Inspiration from Iran
One game Akhtar was undeniably good at was futsal, a five-a-side variant of football. She joined the British Muslim Women’s Futsal Team, and participated in the Muslim Women’s Games in Tehran in 2001. She returned to the Iran games as captain of the team in 2005.
It was the sheer number of gold medals being won by the Iranian teams in Tehran that made Akhtar realize how support for Muslim women athletes in the UK was lacking.
“Everyone thinks of Iran and they think of women being held back – and there are issues out there. But what we saw first-hand was the support that the women’s teams have out in Iran,” she said.
On her return to the UK, Akhtar was determined to do more at the grassroots level to increase participation of Muslim women in sport. She was elected chair of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation, which was founded in 2001 by Ahmed Versi, editor and publisher of The Muslim News.
The organization’s mission is to help bring down the barriers to women – mainly, but not exclusively, Muslims – participating in sport. It sets up women-only tournaments and leagues, and helps provide access to training for female coaches and referees.
It also recognizes the varying needs of women in sport. “There’s absolutely no diversity in women’s sport. We see women in sport as this homogenous group of the female gender. And we don’t quite realize that actually there’s diversity within that.”
The foundation has what Akhtar described as a “no-excuses policy” – eliminating the barriers to Muslim women participating in sport. This could involve, for example, providing a female-only environment; some younger girls especially, said Akhtar, may feel self-conscious about playing sport in front of boys. She said there has been “exponential” growth in Muslim women participating in sport over the last five years.
Another positive sign for Muslim women in sport came last year, when FIFA reversed a ban on hijabs being worn in official football games. The reason given for the initial ban was that head coverings posed a safety risk – something Akhtar disputes.
“I’ve never heard of a case where a turban, hijab or yarmulke has caused anyone’s personal safety, or someone else’s safety, to be compromised in any way,” she said. “I do think it’s more an issue of religious representation rather than an issue of safety. And that, for me, is something that needs to be overcome.”
She said there are “double standards” at play in British sport. Football players are seen going down into prostration to celebrate a goal, while one English cricket player has a large bushy beard – both expressions, she said, of religious faith. But there are still bans on religious garments such as hijabs in sports like basketball, said Akhtar.
“Religion is OK in sport,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned a person’s religious expression – which takes place in absolutely every arena of their life – should not be a barrier to participating in sports. An individual shouldn’t have to choose between their faith or the sport. If they have a love of both, they can combine both.”
Award from the Queen
Akhtar is also the co-founder of The Listening Service, which provides mental health awareness and support for women, with a particular focus those from ethnic minorities.
Akhtar’s achievements were this year marked when she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors list for services to equality and diversity in sport.
“My initial reaction when I received the letter in the post – I obviously had no idea that I’d be receiving it – was just absolute shock. I wasn’t expecting it, clearly. When you do the work that I do with the intentions that I have, you don’t really look at things like MBEs or awards,” she said.
“Obviously it’s really lovely to receive that kind of recognition for your work. But for me it’s more about the cause and the end game.”
But she acknowledges that reaching that “end game” will be more a marathon rather than a sprint.
“Ultimately we want to get to that stage where we’re almost color-blind, or we’re faith-blind,” she said.
“That is generally going to be a longer-term plan. Because these issues are right though society, not just in sports.”