In the heart of the Expo 2020 Dubai grounds, the crowd thickens around a grassy football field as security men turn away eager onlookers. Though there is still an hour for the match to begin, bleachers are already fully packed in anticipation for famed football legend, Didier Drogba, to make his appearance. But there’s another rising star gracing the field with her presence today, and her association with Drogba is quite literally, a dream come true.
When Iqra Ismail was eight years old, she started playing football. Three years later, the night before her school’s football tournament, she scrawled the number 11 on the back of her jersey as a mark of good luck, since it was the jersey number of her favorite player – Drogba. Fast forward a decade, and Ismail is playing on the same field as her childhood idol. The London-based hijabi football player and coach was flown out to the UAE last weekend to coach and play in PepsiCo’s Game of Champions – a historic, mixed-gender match that took place at the Expo 2020 Dubai.
Spreading the message of equality in sports, PepsiCo organized the match to help debunk misconceptions about skill levels between men and women on the field. Ismail says that much has changed since her early foray into football. “There were many who couldn’t comprehend any woman playing football, let alone a Black Muslim woman playing football,” she says, adding that she has faced considerable challenges along the way. “For me personally, being a Black Muslim woman, the intersectionality of that is crazy, there are a lot of barriers. There have been issues in terms of what kind of clothing I can wear, in terms of attitudes of other teams, of my own players, of fans and of managers – I’ve faced it all, but nothing has stopped me yet and I don’t think it will,” she tells Vogue Arabia.
When she was 15, Ismail began voluntary coaching, and received her first coaching badge when she was 18. A year later, she became the youngest winner of the Football Black List, an initiative that celebrates African and Caribbean achievements in British football. Today, at the age of 21, Iqra is the Director of Women’s Football at Hilltop Women’s Football Club. She is also the first captain of the Somali Women’s National team, made up of players from the UK and from Mogadishu, Somalia. In December of 2019, the team flew to compete in Cape Town, South Africa. “We were the first women’s team to ever represent Somalia internationally. Since then we’ve had the pandemic, but we do hope to get that running again,” she says.
When Ismail struts onto the football field for PepsiCo’s Game of Champions at Expo 2020 Dubai, the words, “Play to Inspire” are emblazoned on her white jersey, undoubtedly holding a particularly profound meaning for her. As a hijabi woman of color representing Muslim women on international stages, Ismail is an icon for fellow sisters who are aspiring athletes– especially with Islamophobic politics and policies often adversely impacting Muslim women’s access to sports.
Just days earlier in Paris, Muslim women with hijabi athletes’ collective Les Hijabeuses staged a football match outside of the National Assembly to protest the French bill banning hijabs and other religious symbols in sports. From American basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir to Iranian triathlete competitor Shirin Gerami and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, hijabi athletes across the globe have tirelessly campaigned for their hair-covering guidelines to be accommodated, and for international sporting regulations to become more inclusive.
Ismail believes that in order to bring about real change in attitudes, the movement must extend beyond the Muslim women at its forefront. “It doesn’t just come down to us, we’ve been shouting and screaming, and we’ve been fighting the silent battles,” she says. “It’s time for the rest of the world to wake up and see that we’re being marginalized. It’s something that shouldn’t be happening in 2022 by one of the biggest forces in the world.”
Helping to level the playing field for younger generations of Muslim women is an aspiration that constantly motivates Ismail, who she says that along her journey, the Islamic principle of sabr (patience) has been key. “I’m a very big believer in sabr, and there are a lot of times where I’ve had trials in my life, but holding onto sabr and just being patient has helped me,” says Ismail. “I feel like as long as you keep your faith and your culture and who you are, who you’ve been raised as, very close to you, and you know that what you’re doing is right and it’s something that you’re passionate about, then there’s nothing that should stop you.”