The Active Champions Series is a monthly showcase of inspiring stories from influential people living in Canada who make physical activity and sport a key part of their everyday lives.
When it comes to sport and physical activity, many people must unfortunately overcome adversity and barriers to participate or feel welcome and accepted. As a Muslim athlete who wears a hijab, Amreen Kadwa understands the struggles and lack of representation facing Muslim women and girls who want to join a sports team or simply be active.
PHOTO: AMREEN KADWA
“While playing rugby on my high school team, I just didn’t see other Muslim women playing the sport and other female Muslim athletes being celebrated,”
Amreen told ParticipACTION. “Whenever I told people I played rugby or that I was an athlete, I wouldn’t always get positive reactions. This would often make me wonder, ‘is this something I’m not supposed to be doing?’ There are also a lot of other hijab-wearing athletes who have often had coaches, referees and officials tell them they couldn’t participate because they weren’t following the dress code.”
Although Amreen hasn’t personally faced many of the barriers to sport participation that a lot of her Muslim female peers have and has been fortunate enough to reap the benefits of playing sports, an injury eventually forced her to stop playing rugby temporarily.
“Through rugby, I gained so much more confidence in myself. It gave me many life skills, and I feel like that’s the same with so many other sports. When I got injured while playing rugby and couldn’t be part of that community anymore, I reached out to some other Muslim female athletes to see if our experiences were similar. I got an overwhelming response from a lot of them who felt we needed a resource or network that connected us.”
This led Amreen to start an organization called Hijabi Ballers – a Greater Toronto Area-based, non-profit, volunteer-run organization that seeks to recognize and celebrate the athleticism of Muslim girls and women.
“Our vision is to have Muslim female athletes be celebrated for their identities and feel safe and welcome in sport spaces, as well as to have increased participation and representation of Muslim females within sport spaces and media. It’s so important for young Muslim girls to be able to see themselves represented so they can feel like being an athlete is something that’s possible for them.”
PHOTO: AMREEN KADWA
Since Hijabi Ballers was established around five years ago, the organization has helped many Muslim women and girls get involved in sports through programs like the Sunday Ball – a free, drop-in basketball program. Before being put on pause due to the pandemic, it gave these women and girls a chance to explore their passion for sport and play basketball in an inclusive and welcoming environment.
“Even though in the last couple of years, we haven’t really gotten together to play ball because of the pandemic, we’ve kept in touch with a lot of our athletes virtually. It wasn’t just about basketball – it was about the sisterhood we had and knowing that there are other women and girls out there who share that same love and passion for basketball and other sports. It’s just such a great feeling!”
PHOTO: AMREEN KADWA
With the program on pause, Amreen has had to find other ways to get active like cycling, walking and running.
“I was never into running before, but through it I found some peace and happiness – the same feelings I’d experience when I played sports like basketball and rugby. Being active is such a great outlet when you’re feeling down or want a release. It’s so much fun, too!”
Amreen hopes her one-and-a-half year-old son will one day love physical activity and sports as much as she does.
“I do a lot of activities with my son. I take him on walks every day and we go on bike rides with my husband who has a toddler seat on his bike. I want to expose my son to as many different sports and physical activities as I can to give him an idea of what’s out there. I also want him to feel connected to a community and to feel like sports and physical activity are valuable in his life.”
As for taking up a new sport or physical activity, “just get out there! It takes a lot of courage and confidence to get out of your comfort zone and try something new, but it’s so worth it! It’s not about being the best athlete – it’s about finding a community where you feel like you belong.”