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On a soccer pitch in a central London park, Sisterhood Football Club – a Muslim women’s team – is making a substitution.
“Your hijab, tuck it in. It can’t get in the way,” a teammate calls out as the replacement player runs on.
Sisterhood FC team members practice during a training session at Dockland Settlements Community Centre
Despite the warmth of the afternoon, all of Sisterhood’s players are clothed from head to foot in the club’s all-black colours. Some wear training trousers, almost all of them have hijab head scarves and one is in a full-length abaya robe.
On the sidelines, a squad member unfurls a mat and kneels to pray while her teammates play on against a team led by Brazilian women in bright pink and blue shirts and shorts.
Fatima Ali, 26, prays between matches during the Ladies Super Liga 5-a-side tournament at The Colombo Centre
Fatima takes her football boots off to pray
Founded in 2018, Sisterhood has doubled in size to almost 100 players, allowing its members to enjoy playing football without anyone querying their Muslim dress code or asking why they refrain from socialising in a pub after their games.
“It’s a football club for Muslim women to come and feel free and relaxed and be able to play in their attire,” Kamara Davis, 30, says.
She converted to Islam at age 17 and felt that she would never play soccer again because it seemed incompatible with the religion’s traditional dress. But when she heard about Sisterhood, she jumped at the chance to join.
Sisterhood player Raya Ahmed kicks the ball during a tournament match against PCWAFC at Archbishop’s Park football pitch
“Honestly, it just feels so good, it’s like a release. It feels really nice when I am able to shoot the ball with power,” Davis says.
The club also offers a chance to Muslim women to enjoy a break from traditional roles that many say are expected of them.
Team members Atiya, 24, Kamara and Amilah, 15, wait for the bus home after playing in the Ladies Super Liga tournament
Fatima Ali, 26, says some families struggled at first to understand why their young women members wanted to play sport. “I think a lot of people have approved of it,” she says. “But it is still going to take time, it’s not just a one-step process.”
“Even your brothers might be like what’s the point of you going all the way from west London to southeast but I’ll be like: ‘I enjoy playing, we’ve got a team, this is it, we’ve got a match, we’ve got to go to do this.’”
Fatima jogs around the pitch during warm up at a Sisterhood training session
Yasmin Abdullahi, Sisterhood’s Somali-British founder, recalled the surprise of many fellow female Muslim students when she told them that she was playing football for London University’s Goldsmiths College whilst a student.
“They could not believe that they were seeing a girl that wears a hijab and saying that she plays football,” Abdullahi, a 30-year-old professional fashion model, says.
Yasmin chases her teammate Assma Asif, 25, during a training session in Hyde Park
Sisterhood FC goalkeeper, Fahiima Yusuf, 19, holds the ball during a Ladies Super Liga 5-a-side match at The Colombo Centre
So she set up the club as a way to reconcile the interest in playing sport among many Muslim women and their adherence to their faith. To underscore the point, Sisterhood’s club badge features the image of a hijab, which was barred by soccer’s world governing body FIFA on safety grounds in 2007. The ban was only relaxed in 2012, with the hijab fully permitted in 2014.
Like many of Sisterhood’s players, Abdullahi is excited about the World Cup in Qatar. “What comes with the World Cup is such a beautiful experience, watching matches with your family and your friends.”
Team members huddle during a Sisterhood training session
But like other club members, Abdullahi drew the contrast between the funding for the England men’s team compared with the national women’s team which won the Women’s European Championship this year for the first time.
“If they’d had equal investment and equal opportunity, where would the women be?” she asked.
Sisterhood runs a weekly training session and its first team competes in the Ladies Super Liga for 5- and 7-a-side teams.
Atiya in a Ladies Super Liga 5-a-side match against Hackney Wick FC
Atiya adjusts her robe during training
Sara Taleghani, 25, says she struggled to reconcile her faith and her hopes of playing sports when she was at school in Ireland.
“I constantly had coaches trying to compromise my religion,” says Taleghani, who works as a social media manager for a public relations agency.
Teachers used to say that her head scarf posed a hazard and they insisted that she wore shorts. “I think that’s the reason I stopped playing sports at school,” she says.
For Faezeh Deriss, 23, who recently completed a degree in child psychology, being able to wear what she wants while playing is vital.
“I’ve been to a couple of other football places but there weren’t any girls who looked like me,” she says. “Other teams I played with, they tried to make me wear shorts. I tried wearing shorts with leggings underneath but it didn’t feel right.”
Faezeh scores a penalty during a friendly football match
There is no such conflict at Sisterhood. “I feel confident saying to the team that I am just going to go and pray. It’s not an issue,” says Deriss.
Taleghani says she was encouraged to see other Muslim women’s football teams but she had a sense of regret that some players of her generation will never fulfil their potential, given how recently they were given the chance to play.
Teammates pray during a training session in King George’s Park in London
“If there had been spaces like this when we were growing up, I know a few girls who would have made it as pros,” she says.
For founder Abdullahi, the most important achievement of the club is the sense of togetherness among its members, many of whom have become friends.
Fatima, and Sara Taleghani, 25, video-call the founder, Yasmin, to celebrate their first match win
“I think the thing that honestly brings tears to my eyes is the fact that we’ve actually built our little community,” says Abdullahi. “The name Sisterhood FC, it’s not by accident – like we have literally built a sisterhood.”