By Rimla Akhtar
Sport has had a massive impact on my life and the lives of many others. There truly are no limits to what it can help achieve. That’s why it’s important for us in the sports world to reset the boundaries of what is possible.
As Chair of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation (MWSF), my role is to do just that by setting a high standard for the industry when it comes to the inclusion of Muslim female athletes. The truth is that there is a large gap between the people who run the sports industry and those who participate in it. Sport has taken huge steps in addressing and countering discrimination, but it is important to point out that anti-discrimination is not the same as inclusion. Inclusion is about representation and, thus far, we’ve only taken baby steps towards improving the record of sport in this area. If we’re looking to continually improve the future of sport, we must embrace diversity to ensure representation is at the heart of decision-making.
I don’t want people to look at me as an Asian or Muslim woman but, at the same time, I recognize that it is important that they do. Muslims are increasingly being viewed from only one angle. When the word ‘Muslim’ is used, there tends to be a vilification and those who identify as Muslim feel they are being pushed into more and more isolated positions, both here in the United Kingdom (UK) and abroad. The same can be said for the sports world. I strive not only to be a visible symbol of the Islam I know—a religion that for over 1400 years has advocated equality—but also a voice for inclusivity, especially for vulnerable groups.
Despite what seems to me an obvious benefit of opening sports to a wide range of disciplines, cultures and peoples—including women—I find myself constantly needing to justify diversity and inclusion, particularly when it comes to gender.
In the UK, women in sports have penetrated positions in both leadership and on the field. It is exciting to see this movement grow. But, so far, women of color have largely been left behind. When I have brought up the lack of diversity in the past, my position has mostly been met with discomfort or ignored. Organizations that are constantly talking about sexism and equality must therefore reflect on their own make up and whether they are truly representative of all women in sport and inclusive in the fullest sense.
Ironically, the industry’s strategy of seeing women as a homogenous group blinds many spectators, athletes, and participants to the fact that women of color have multiple layers of prejudice stacked against them. Unfortunately, for myself and others I know, it isn’t just sexism, but racism and anti-Muslim sentiment, that combine to form a potent force of discrimination that adversely affects these women in sport, on and off the field.
In men’s sports, I’ve found that issues such as the lack of black managers in football and the pitiful three percent of black, Asian and other ethnic minority board members on UK national sport governing bodies are aired and acknowledged. In women’s sports, however, racial diversity is rarely questioned, as its accomplishments for gender equality are seen as brilliant and above scrutiny.
Everyone stands to gain from diversity. Minority communities will feel that they have an equal opportunity to fulfill their potential and organizations will achieve stronger performances. Diversity isn’t just about gender or race, but of philosophies and outlooks: a spectrum of people who bring to the table experience, knowledge, and leadership.
The industry needs a game plan that will demonstrate commitment to equality and eradication of prejudices. All stakeholders must agree and articulate their commitment to providing pathways and the right environment for women of color to progress in all areas of sport—from players through to executive positions.
But, it’s not just for the industry to act. Whether we’re fans, decision makers, amateur athletes or pros, we can and must set our own narrative to improve the experience of sport so that it is truly for all. Part of that process is seeing real role models from diverse backgrounds, which is why Shirzanan is so important in creating that change.
Sport can and has removed barriers. And with the incredible power that sport certainly has, we will begin to live in a world where we are the best versions of ourselves, where our dreams are achieved.
Rimla Akhtar is that rare individual who has lived global business and elite sport. In 2014, she became the first Muslim and Asian woman on The Football Association Council in addition to her role on the Inclusion Advisory Board at the FA and in 2015 was awarded an MBE for her contribution to equality and diversity in sport. She is a developer, communicator and strategist best known for her work as an Inclusion and Diversity specialist in sport, which led to her being ranked 15th in the 2015 list of The Independent’s Most Influential Women in Sport.
Whilst carving out a successful career in the city at leading global professional services firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Ms. Akhtar also captained Britain in Futsal competitions. In her last role before becoming a sports development consultant, she had global responsibility for a number of FTSE 100 clients across a number of industries. She is founder of the leading sport development consultancy, RimJhim Consulting, and, as Chair of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation (MWSF), she has led the organization to one with a distinct reputation nationally and internationally for its extensive work in the field of women’s sport.
Ms. Akhtar has over 15 years’ experience in the sports industry across the UK, Middle East and Asia as well as a number of accolades to her name, including most recently the Sky Sports and Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Community Award in 2013 and the Asian Woman in Sport Award at the inaugural Asian Football Awards in January 2012 at Wembley Stadium. The MWSF, under her stewardship, has also been recognized with awards and commendations, including the Beyond Sport ‘Beyond London 2012’ Inclusion and Diversity Award 2013, the Muslim News Awards for Excellence in Sport in 2009 and the Mosaic Award for Sport in 2008 presented by HRH Prince Charles. She now divides her time between writing, speaking, mentoring, practical and strategic consultancy and campaigns. Ms. Akhtar independently advises and leads projects with governments, advocacy organizations, national and international sports bodies and community groups. She is a sought-after speaker and commentator who communicates with quiet humility, practicality and passion.
Ms. Akhtar was a founding Shirzanan board advisor serving from 2014-2016.