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In conversation with trailblazing rugby player Zainab Alema

25th Dec 2020
In conversation with trailblazing rugby player Zainab Alema

(Photo credit: Geoff Pugh)

British Ghanaian rugby player Zainab Alema and The Sunday Times newly named Vitality Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year took some time off her busy schedule to speak to The Muslim News about life as a Black Muslim female rugby player, diversity in Rugby as well as her grassroots project Studs in the Mud. Zainab aka “the Bulldozer”, who is also a neonatal nurse, currently plays at Barnes Rugby Club. Through her obvious passion of the sport and advocacy for the women’s game, she has been featured on various sporting platforms namely ITV Sports, The Telegraph, Virtual Rugby Show, Rugby world Magazine, Sky News and many more. The mum of three endeavours to be a positive voice for the sport and has hopes to inspire and empower the younger generation.


When and how did your passion for rugby start?

It started at school PE session in Year 9, my PE teacher said, “Right girls! We’re going to play rugby today,” I said, “Oh okay let’s do it!” My peers were not so keen, but we got on with it, and I had an absolute blast. My teacher said after the session that I looked good and was having fun so suggested I take it up outside of school. I shrugged it off.

I went on to do A-level PE as I loved sports and I had to do a practical element to my coursework. So, my A level PE teacher asked what sport did I want to do. I thought back to that PE session in Year 9 and said let me give rugby a go, so she went to the Headteacher and got him to authorise a cheque to pay for my first membership at my first club at Ealing Trailfinders Rugby Club in West Ealing. I’ve never looked back since.


How did your parents react to your desire to play rugby?

My mum was concerned that I would hurt myself as she knew rugby was a physically demanding sport, but she didn’t stop me. My dad, on the other hand, said it was a man’s sport and elitist.

He couldn’t understand why I wanted to play. He even suggested tennis, I think because of Serena Williams, but I wasn’t interested in tennis. He saw I was adamant and just let me get on with it. Now he’s a super proud dad and talks of framing all the articles I’ve been in and hanging them up around the house!


Why do you think there is a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic under-representation in rugby, compared to say football?

I think accessibility is a big thing. Rugby is commonly perceived to be a sport for white middle/upper-class people who go to private school. For state schools it’s almost unnatural to be a rugby playing school – I was fortunate enough that my PE teacher loved rugby, so she introduced it to us.

Representation is a big thing too if young black, Asian and other ethnic minorities don’t see people who look like them, or they can relate to. In a certain space there is less likely to think that space is for them. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – essentially.

Perceptions within our community and changing them is important, just like my dad had his perceptions and didn’t think his young black Muslim daughter should be playing such a sport. But I think it’s important to highlight the positive things that sports gives you.

In regard to rugby, it has its values, respect, discipline and sportsmanship to name a few and those values can do wonders for a young person or woman – you develop skills that are transferable to other aspects of life. I spoke to my dad a few months ago, and he admitted to me that I had become a more patient and caring person since taking up rugby.


What obstacles did you face as a hijab-wearing Muslim rugby player?

Looking different was tough. I’d step on the pitch wearing under-layers covering arm and legs and a hijab, whilst my teammates had their legs out and sleeveless shirts. I struggled in the beginning. I felt isolated and like I didn’t fit in, not only because of my faith and the hijab but also my ethnicity as a black girl in a white-dominated space.

Also, rugby has an alcohol culture like many other sports where the team goes to the bar after a game and have a few pints of alcoholic beverages. I’d avoid all social in university because they were alcohol dependent.

Now away from university and at a senior team, people are much more sensible with their drinking and I have teammates that don’t drink at all. So it’s a more comfortable space. Also I don’t have the pressure or desire to fit in like I perhaps did at university. I’m happy to sit down after the match and enjoy a glass of orange juice with my teammates.


You founded the Stud in The Mud project, tell us about the work the project does in supporting women’s rugby at grassroots?

It’s a project aimed at using rugby and its values to create a positive impact in the community. It’s about using sport to empower women and inspire children and young people. I launched it in Ghana, where I fundraised for boots and rugby equipment to school kids who played rugby. Some were playing barefooted and in sandals, so when they received a pair of brand-new boots the joy on their faces was invaluable. I went to Morocco too and met with a women’s team. It was a special trip as I was surrounded by women that looked like me and shared my beliefs a contrast from here in the UK where I’m often the only one. I have a box of boots waiting to get shipped out to Morocco for the team I met as part of my rugby project.

I have another project that’s called, Muslimah Rugby. It’s a new project. At the moment it’s just online due to restrictions. It’s a community that seeks to connect, network Muslim women in rugby. We are very underrepresented, and I want people to know although we are a minority within the rugby community, we exist. Muslimah Rugby is about smashing stereotypes of the Muslim woman and giving us space and platform to unity. The idea of this stemmed from my own experiences of feeling isolated and different.

I don’t want any other Muslim woman to go through what I did and to feel like she’s alone. I navigated it all by myself and at one point thought I was the only Muslim woman in the world that played rugby but now I know I’m not. Muslimah Rugby will have socials where we meet up, go to watch each other’s games – train together, etc. a real sense of belonging. I’m looking forward to bringing the online community to life.

Interview by Elham Asaad Buaras

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