Growing up, Lipa Nessa had a passion for football, which led her to coin her catchphrase “I’m going to change the world with a hijab on my head and a ball at my feet.” Former semi professional football player, and now a grassroots coach and sports activist. Lipa sits on various sports boards locally and nationally showcasing her passion for sports education, sports policy, and innovation.
We talk to Lipa about women in football and the art of sport.
Can you tell us about your journey into sports? Growing up, were you always interested in sports?
Sport was always a way I would express myself and the easiest form of communication. As a young child I was very introverted, however I found my voice when playing sports and games with others. The passion with my age only grew, where I slowly learnt that it was not just a thing I do for fun, but what I do to ground myself. Sport and religion always went hand in hand for me. As I grew closeness with my religion, the pickier I became with the sports I participated in. Although I was in every sport club for my schools, there was always one sport I would run towards, and that was football. It was cheap, easy to access, and the attire was flexible enough not to compromise my modesty. My love for football started at a young age when my parents brought me a football with my favorite cartoon printed on it. I think it is safe to say that seeded the rest of my life.
You are a former semi-professional footballer, how did you end up playing on the pitch?
There was a love and attachment I had with football since a young age which I never noticed until I was in a P.E. lesson one day. For the first team the girls were allowed to play football for P.E. in school and I had no idea what this would lead me to. After two lessons My P.E teachers took me to the side asking me what team I play for, when I replied ‘nobody, I play in the back garden with my friends.’ The teachers were shocked, and at that moment I thought I was in trouble. However, the teachers saw the ability I organically grew without realizing. That week a teacher informed my mum that and I quote ‘needs to join a team.’ I then played for this team and made my semi-pro debut whilst juggling my GCSE’s. I was living my dream and my ambitions started growing.
You famously said “I’m going to change the world with a hijab on my head and a ball at my feet.” How has this change been received?
Attending event after event whilst being a first-year student in university, people were amazed by my marketing ability but curious to know what the quote really meant. This would often lead to me talking about how I got into sports, and then how I started play semi pro, to then giving it up. If people struggle to remember my name, they always remember my quote, sometimes they do get it back to front but the moment is wholesome. To think when I was creating this quote, I was on the verge of giving up on sport, to now knowing that it’s a way people remember me is a huge privilege.
You are both as a passionate activist and a fearless representative for women and ethnic minorities involved in football and sports more widely. How do you deal with the pressure?
Pressure in sports varies from spectators, player, coach, media personal and policy maker. However, the greatest pressure I had encountered were negative comments made by those that could not quiet fathom my work. The way I have always grounded myself in sports, is to turn to my religion, paint, write poetry, or simply play more sports.
You are a trustee for the Muslimah Sports Association. What kinds of barriers do Muslim women face to sports participation and what changes have been made to address this?
A major factor to sports participation for Muslim women are facilities. In Muslimah Sports Associations (MSA) self-funded survey we found that 43% of British Muslim women said that current sports facilities are not appropriate for them. A third of our sample cited past experiences have negatively impacted participation in sports. Alongside facilities, there are also a lack of awareness when there are spaces for Muslim women to participate in sports. Importantly 65% of women stated that they were unaware of women only events/ sports, and 80% stated that they would be likely to attend a women’s only sports sessions if they were available to them. However more research needed to unpick the nuances around ‘appropriate environments’ so MSA’s research is a taster, and we recognize there is a need for understanding and engaging with British Muslim women further. This takes me to the next point of engagement from NGBs to review their polices to help them to understand communities, by working with charities like MSA who have researched into their communities. We need to stop sitting on research and start taking action, however action is only possible with funds, change in polices and better collaboration.
How has wearing the religious headscarf impacted women’s access to sports?
Unfortunately wearing a headscarf has added a barrier to women participating in sports in certain countries. We can see in the journey of Les Hijabeuses a football team based in France, where they are fighting to play football whilst holding onto their faith. No one should ever feel the need to pick and choose especially in the matter of religious attire and freedom of expression through sports. This and many other stories impact the participation of Muslim women and girls within sports. Sports should be accessible to everyone, and it should not be a privilege to some and a chore for others. The less barriers present the increase of access to sports and participation, will equal better physical and mental wellbeing.
Recently, big sports brands have been showcasing inclusivity, with sports hijabs or burkinis, head-to-toe swimwear and other modest sportswear. Do you think it has offered new opportunities for Muslim women in sports?
It has definitely opened conversation around inclusivity in sports as a whole. However, there is an argument of accessibility as most swim attires made by mainstream big brands are excluding majority of Muslim women with their price point. With the recent politician turmoil in counties excluding women from wearing burkinis, there are opportunities to challenge, however as long as governments go against the attire there will be a large majority of women which will be excluded from participating/ exploring potential sports.
Do you think there are opportunities for art and sport to integrate?
I have always said that sports are a form of art. It is a unique physical way of expressing oneself. Sport like art is a universal language, so no matter who you are, what you believe in, or where you come from, we are united by one commonality.
Can the arts facilitate social change?
For those that came before us, to those that will come after us, to now, art has always been a route for artists to express advocacy through reflection on social issues and change. Art sparks one’s curiosity especially when it is a message others can relate to, explore, and express. Through these avenues artists are great promoters of critical thinking and inspiring change.
What are your thoughts on the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture?
Less thoughts and more excitement. Islam has given the world art in abundance through centuries, but with more young people being mindful with their hobbies, crafts, and career’s I am intrigued to see what my generation of Muslims will create in the field of arts, heritage and culture.
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