Zainab Alema: Faith, Race, Rugby and Me


"Muslim women are supposed to be at home, cook, clean and have children. We do that to a certain extent, but we can do a lot more. I'm determined to break these stereotypes."

Last updated: 10/26/20 7:51 am

Zainab Alema shares her experience as a black Muslim rugby player

In the not too distant future, Zainab Alema is hoping to sit on the sofa and cheer a cup of Earl Gray in the hand of a Muslim woman playing for England.

When it happens, expect tears, lots of them, because this woman known to her teammates as the "Bulldozer" has spent her game days overcoming many physical, emotional and cultural barriers to get her there.

1:42 Zainab Alema on the nickname & # 39; Bulldozer & # 39;

Zainab Alema on the nickname & # 39; Bulldozer & # 39;

Growing up, Zainab never thought about playing rugby, she didn't even know women could do it. But from the moment she was "stuck" for the first time during an exercise class at 17, she enjoyed every second of "feeling free and just running." The game became intertwined "like an old friend" in her life. But like old friends, there were times when she questioned the relationship and sometimes felt like an outsider, someone who wasn't one of them.

From the moment she was born at just 26 weeks prematurely, she was a fighter and said she had an innate drive: "If I want to do something, I try my best to get it done." She liked sports in school, but until this physical education class she didn't love any sports. The same physical education teacher who encouraged her to try it out took her to a training session at Ealing Trailfinders, but even then, Zainab's rugby journey almost didn't begin.

"I was so excited to go to my first session and I got lost and the coach found me. By then the session was over. I was so ashamed. I've lived in London all my life but I have totally lost. "

Accessibility, she believes, was one of the hurdles she had to overcome. “Often clubs are in remote areas where you have to walk so far down the street before you actually get to the club. When I started at 17, I was using public transport on my own. It was difficult to get down, especially in winter driving dark roads. My teammates had their parents who dropped them off in cars, but I was so passionate about the game that I was just continuing. "

3:02 Zainab Alema on early challenges

Zainab Alema on early challenges

By far the biggest obstacle to Zainab was their culture. She says she is often stared at and commented on when in the park, complete with her hijab and rugby ball in hand. Her father couldn't understand why an African Muslim woman wanted to play rugby, "a male, elitist sport". There are stereotypes she says about Muslim households: "Women should be at home, cook, clean and have children. We do that to a certain extent, but we can do a lot more. I am determined to break these stereotypes. "

It was'nt easy. She joined the rugby team while studying as a newborn nurse at university but sometimes struggled to adapt, not just because of her looks.

"I felt a bit out of place because most of the socializing was so alcohol-based. Not that the team would do this on purpose. We'd have a beer for the woman in the game and I would win it quite often." and then have to nominate someone to have it and it was so uncomfortable that I wanted the ground to swallow me up. It may seem like something small to someone else, but it was these little experiences that were so difficult for me.

"I was the only black person on my team who wore a hijab and leggings under my shorts. I look different and all that stuff was playing in my head. I would just end up playing and then leaving, and when I look back, do." it makes me feel a little sad, I didn't have the time to connect with my team off the pitch just because of this awkwardness.

"People say you could just sit down and have a Coke, which I do now, but I think it's a little different in college, I think you go to the bar a lot more too."

When she left university and started nursing, she found that something was missing in her life. She needed a way to relieve the stress so she started looking for a new rugby club.

"What I did was a bit curious about her on social media. What's the mood in the club? Is there a black person? Is there an Asian person? Is there someone I can relate to?"

She settled in Millwall and earned her nickname "Bulldozer". Her job as No. 8 was to pick up the ball on the back of the scrum and hit it directly into the opposing half of the fly.

"The name is kind of a metaphor for what I do and who I am. It shatters and destroys things, it's like what I do with stereotypes. I kind of like it and it stuck."

2:15 Zainab Alema on barriers

Zainab Alema on barriers

Zainab currently plays at Barnes Rugby Club. "They are great and it's weird, even though Barnes is a very bourgeois area and there are hardly any black people in the club. I feel so at home. I think because I'm one." Adult I know how to take control of my emotions and I can say no when I don't want to be in an environment. We recently had another black woman who came to us because of me, and that's great. "

In light of this, things may start to change – "there is slow progress," she says. Her hero was World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi and now she loves to watch England's Shaunagh Brown.

"There's more visibility and I like to be active on my social media because I want people to know that you can play rugby when you're black. I know how difficult it is so I want to be open about my journey So that other people like me can get away with it or think I might want to play rugby, can look at me and say they know what I can do. "

Zainab runs "Studs in the Mud" where she tries rugby to change people's lives for the better. It ships equipment all over the world to give people, especially women and children, the opportunity to play. She also has a project that aims to encourage more Muslim women to play rugby.

"It's about creating a safe space. We're so underrepresented that I thought I was the only one at one point, so I'm trying to amplify our voices and create a place where they can play. We are here for you to come and give you I hope we can watch each other's games, have little social things together and have a sense of belonging to the rugby community. "

Zainab goes on to talk about the one time she almost turned her back on rugby. "I was ready to say you know what, I'm done, I can't see myself in this room. It was pretty emotional.

"I went on to the World Rugby Guidelines and wanted to see for myself if someone like me could play in a headscarf, a hijab. I was ready to go, but to see that it was okay to play in one, cemented it for me. There in black and white it said I could practice my faith and play the game. I can be a Muslim rugby player. "

2:37 Zainab Alema on belonging to rugby

Zainab Alema on belonging to rugby

What does your father think of rugby now?

"Oh, he's so proud. I went to The Telegraph a while back and he went straight to the newsagents to buy a copy and have it framed to hang on the wall and I thought, '" ; Hey, are you the same person it was? Ask me why I want to play rugby? "He's so super proud of me right now."

"You have to see it to be it," she concludes.

Zainab will continue to bulldoz her way through the game, being different and getting noticed is no longer negative for her. She uses it to make rugby really diverse. She will deserve this celebratory cup of tea when her rugby ambition is realized and a Muslim woman wears the Red Rose of England.


Steven Gregory