LONDON (RNS) — Sumayyah Akhter wasn’t close with many other Muslim girls growing up.
“I lived in a very small white town before I moved to London,” she said. “So I only ever had, like, three Muslim friends. That’s why I applied to university in London.”
But even though the University of Westminster has a large Muslim population and an active Islamic society, commonly referred to as an ISOC, Akhter still found it difficult to connect with other Muslims on campus.
She might have been disappointed — had she not stumbled upon a Facebook page called ISOC Netball during her first month at Westminster, where she studies French and international relations.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, that exists?’” said Akhter, who had played netball for eight years at both the school and club levels. “I played netball all my life and always wanted to get back into it, and I’ve met tons of Muslim girls now, so that was kind of like two in one for me. I’m literally so happy I joined.”
In the fall of 2017, two Muslim women studying at the London School of Economics founded the netball club for women in their school’s Islamic society. The pair had played against each other in a local netball league before university and sought a way for their Muslim friends of any athletic ability to get involved in sports.
Back then, the group was small, with about 10 LSE students that founders Faiza Siddiqi and Hibah Rizki knew. Since then, it’s grown to an interuniversity club, with Muslim students at over a dozen institutions up and down the U.K. involved.
Although less common in the U.S., netball is popular among women in Commonwealth nations. The sport is similar to basketball but is played by two teams of seven players each and does not allow dribbling or running with the ball. Players are also assigned roles, restricting their movement to designated areas of the court.
Because it’s typically played as part of schools’ physical education classes, most young Brits have a basic familiarity with the fast-paced game. Virtually any Muslim woman at an area university can join the team with little to no learning curve.
“Having started the club over two years ago, it feels amazing to see how far it has come,” said Rizki, who now works as a business analyst in a law firm while Siddiqi serves as an executive officer in Britain’s Foreign Office. “The team has evolved and become a place where girls from all universities feel welcome. I think it offers students the opportunity to practice sport without judgment and make new friends.”
The club’s founders graduated in 2018. But both remain involved in the club, coordinating matches, joining players in games and showing up with a whistle around their necks to referee.
The club is now helmed by captain Amina Hassan, a third-year biomedical student at St. George’s, University of London.
“Muslim women are very underrepresented in sports,” she said. “You only see the standout ones, and none of us feel like we can get to that point. And even if we wanted to, there’s nowhere to play.”
Hassan said the initiative offers an inclusive alternative to Muslim women who feel uncomfortable joining university sports teams due to barriers including drinking culture, the lack of prayer breaks, the uniforms and the prospect of playing with mixed genders.
“They have their socials every week that are just not halal. They all wear their little dresses up to here” — she indicated her thighs — “and then we’ve got all our long sleeves and leggings, and it’s too much.”
The team is one of a number of initiatives emerging to increase British Muslim women’s participation in sports.
Among Muslim women, a 2017 analysis by Sport England found, just 18% reported participating in sport regularly, compared with about 30% of the U.K.’s female population. And just half of Muslim women said they performed at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, compared with 72% of women of no religion.
Last year, London’s Brunel University became the country's first to offer a lightweight sports hijab for its student athletes. The move was championed by the student union as a potential solution to a gap in minority female students’ participation in group sports.
Other U.K. Muslim-led projects such as Muslim Girls Fence, launched by community-based charity Maslaha in collaboration with British Fencing and Sport England; Grace & Poise ballet academy; and Safari Kickboxing’s women-only Muay Thai program seek to champion Muslim women in sports by offering culturally sensitive classes to help participants gain confidence and interest in physical activity. Another Muslim woman, in Birmingham, started a community women’s netball team to overcome her own postnatal depression.
But most efforts have been short term, with limited funding, and therefore have not made any sustained impact, noted Anira Khokhar, a representative for the British-based Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation.
Grassroots, community-led initiatives like the netball team are a “brilliant” start, she said, offering young women a “safe space to pursue these activities in a more accessible and private way,” and thereby boosting physical, mental and social well-being.
“I personally stopped doing sports as soon as my body started changing,” she recalled. “I was embarrassed and didn’t feel comfortable running around anymore. But if there were support systems out there, then I could have carried on playing netball and swimming without feeling like I was jeopardizing my religion.”
A major aim of the netball team is to allow players to bring their faith with them onto the court.
“When it hits maghrib time at 4:30 (p.m.), everyone’s just lined up on the court praying,” Hassan said, referring to the daily evening prayer. “These guys made me lead the prayer last week. You can’t do that at any other league.”
Many people assume the team is somehow strict or religious in nature, she said, noting that Islamic societies can have a reputation for being judgmental about students’ faith.
“My cousin literally asked me, ‘Every time you score, does someone say takbeer?’” she said, referring to the Arabic expression praising God. Her team members burst into laughter around her at the idea. “I was like, no, it’s not like that at all. It’s just open for all Muslim girls to get together.”
Some players pointed to university leagues’ intensely competitive nature as intimidating, saying they preferred the accessibility of their club. But members of the ISOC club have a competitive streak, too. The group has entered area tournaments and regularly plays against other university clubs. And in March, the group will host another national inter-ISOC tournament at the Colombo Centre’s netball courts in Waterloo.
“I’m not driving down from Birmingham and wasting all that petrol not to get a medal,” one player said with a laugh.
Last year’s tournament had eight teams participating; this year, organizers hope to get at least 10 involved. Either way, the players agreed, Manchester is the team to beat.
Even at their weekly matches, the group can get aggressive.
“I have to remind them it’s a no-contact sport,” Siddiqi said as the women jostle each other beneath the hoop.
On this dreary, cold Sunday, 14 students participated in the weekly match. When the sun comes out, organizers said, about 40 students show up and divide themselves between two courts.
“Allah gave you height, use it!” one player shouts. “Footwork, footwork!” another reminds.
Inevitably, locals walking past the courts look up as they hear the players’ shouts, and many do a double take as they see the players’ full-length joggers, hoodies and, for many of them, hijabs.
“It’s a bunch of hijabis and Muslim girls running around, so everyone’s always like, ‘What’s going on?’” Siddiqi said, blowing her whistle as a player ran offsides. “It’s an odd sight for most people.”