- Iqra Ismail founded NUR, a women’s football club for ethnic minorities
- NUR, which stands for 'Never Underestimate Resilience', has resonated widely
- "It's shown how much football is needed"
Playing football is seemingly simple enough: you pull on a shirt and shorts, tie up your boots and away you go.
But is it always that easy? Apparently not if you are a black Muslim woman, as Iqra Ismail knows all too well. “I sort of drew all the short straws in terms of Islamophobia, racism and a lot of sexism too; I’m on the wrong side of all of it,” said the England-born Somalian.
“The biggest battle has definitely been as a Muslim woman,” she continued. “Women’s football is growing, but to be fair it is growing mainly for the white community and for people that have more privilege and standing in their community, and can get away with a bit more essentially. As a Muslim woman there are more restrictions, more stereotypes - and not just from my own community but from the rest of the world as well.
"It is difficult because, for example, my kit has to be a bit different. I can’t wear shorts and stuff like that because of my religious beliefs. That’s something I have to explain because I’m playing football but also I’m a bit different to the rest of the people playing. It isn’t a big difference but it’s just a little miscommunication that happens sometimes and reminds me that I’m not the same as everyone else.”
That backdrop of constantly having to explain herself, of being misunderstood or discriminated against led to Ismail coming up with the idea of creating a place where dark-skinned Muslim women could feel comfortable and understood. “When I was younger I had a couple of trials and I used to discuss this a lot with a couple of my friends,” she said.
“We’d say, ‘We’re not accepted here, but one day we’ll have a place where we are accepted and where these girls can play and feel comfortable.’ I remember saying, ‘When we’ve established our careers and have saved a lot of money, we can do it then’. And then it hit me around last year. I held a tournament and I remember seeing a lot of girls there.
"The demand was a lot higher than I thought it was and a lot of the girls have genuine talent. They just needed somewhere to express it.” And so it was that she founded NUR, ‘Never Underestimate Resilience’, a football club for black and minority ethnic (BAME) women.
With the support of her friends Amirah Jama and Badra Osman, Ismail’s idea soon became a reality. After the first training session it was clear that NUR was no mere pipe dream; it had struck a chord in the community.
“When we had that first session on 21 June it really came to light how much football is needed,” said Ismail, who has the FA Level 1 coaching certificate. “And it continued to grow like that. It started with 15 girls, then 18, 23 and 40. It really grew exponentially and in a way I never thought it would.”
Her love of the game took hold at an early age, in part thanks to her brother, who is a big Chelsea fan and with whom she would watch matches together. If anyone ever told her she could not play, it made her all the more determined to prove them wrong.
“It’s a mad concept for me to believe that something like this that was so blatantly needed hadn’t been provided before,” she said. “But maybe it was only blatant to me how needed it was because I was on the inside of things. I’m glad to be the person to have done it. But if it wasn’t me, I would have wanted it to be someone else. I just want the girls to play and have that environment.”
Nevertheless, in an era of social media, Ismail and her fellow team-mates have still been subjected to hostility on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Such abuse is, unfortunately, something a large number of players across the world now have to deal with.
“Social media can be a very positive place but it can also be a very toxic one,” said the 20-year-old. “I utilise the block button. I’ll be honest with you, the block button is a beautiful thing.
"I remember having a conversation with my players and I said, ‘There will be times when people say certain things but you just have to remember that they are one person, but we are a unit, a team. We represent each other and protect each other. Remember that. These are just people behind a screen, they don’t mean a lot and they’re not the people that can say something that counts.’
"All of us had our fair share of racism growing up. We knew what could be said: ‘You can’t play. You should be in the kitchen’. All those sort of things. And once you’ve had all of it, you just laugh.”
For Ismail, who is currently studying for her bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology, it is now especially important that the next generation can also benefit from NUR. Many girls stop playing football around the age of 15 and 16 because their parents want them to focus on their education. They start playing again four or five years later, but that gap is one that Ismail would like to close.
“It is really important for the younger age groups, maybe the U-10s, U-13s, U-16s, U-6s and U-8s even,” she said. “You need to instil this idea of resilience and passion for the game at a young age. I want to instil the idea early and say, ‘You know what? If football is your passion, you need to keep going with it.’
"So we need to start from a young age that they can build and grow and keep the idea in their heads. If it’s something they want to do, that is perfectly fine. At least they had a good run at it and the opportunity and the time to figure out what they want to do. A lot of these girls did not have the opportunity."