Football's 'Three Hijabis' take anti-racism fight to Euro 2024 finals

Muslim friends Shaista Aziz, Huda Jawad and Amna Abdullatif are campaigning for equality in the game

Powered by automated translation

Three years after football’s pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 turned from optimism to racism in England, three Muslim women who were symbols of that summer are still seeing both sides of the coin.

It was a stereotype-shattering time, as Shaista Aziz, Huda Jawad and Amna Abdullatif gained viral fame as Muslim women cheering on an England men's team that spoke about social justice – and even reached a major final.

“It was a bit of a revelation that three Muslim women in hijab knew something about football,” recalls Ms Aziz. “We knew what the offside rule is. Who knew that, right?”

But the uplifting mood was punctured in the final when three black England players were abused for missing penalties against Italy, leading the three women to start a petition demanding life bans for racists.

Fast forward to next week's Euro 2024 and the Three Hijabis, the name they use as they campaign for equality in football, work with clubs and schools and support victims of racism, say progress in the game has been mixed.

They are braced for an ugly side of the Euros as host country Germany witnesses a rise in racist violence and far-right rhetoric, partly linked to the Israel-Gaza war.

The Paris 2024 Olympics will be another focal point as they host a workshop in the French capital on gender, anti-Muslim hatred and a ban on French athletes wearing the hijab.

Before the Euros they are reaching out to anti-racism activists and community groups to offer support in case tensions spill over.

After all, football is only a mirror of wider society, Ms Aziz said when The National met the trio at Wembley, the scene of the penalty misses at Euro 2020, which was postponed to 2021 by the pandemic.

The three unlucky players, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho, had all spoken out on equality at a time of Black Lives Matter protests around the world.

England manager Gareth Southgate has been praised, including by the Three Hijabis, for creating a positive, inclusive atmosphere around a team that was once a byword for hooliganism.

Such activism can come at a cost, with Rashford repeatedly being harangued by fans and told to “focus on football” after his form for Manchester United dipped.

Taking a knee before kick-off as a stand against racism has been cut back to certain weekends in the Premier League, while remaining more common in the women’s game.

“I think football has really started to acknowledge that it has a role to play in relation to tackling inequalities,” said Ms Aziz, but “overwhelmingly it’s individual footballers" who are taking up this work, as opposed to football itself.

“What we want to see is systemic, long-term, courageous and brave change coming from football, because it has a big part to play in tackling these issues in society.”

Muslims at Man City

Some of the good and bad news was on display to the Three Hijabis on a recent trip to the Etihad Stadium to watch the Manchester derby.

Joining them at the Women’s Super League game were about 150 young Muslim women, many of whom had never been to a match before.

The sight of Muslim girls praying while wearing Erling Haaland shirts felt a good illustration of reclaiming football from the bigots.

Another record-smashing season has just ended for attendances in the WSL, in which Manchester City came a close second to Chelsea.

Still, the boom in the women’s game has not erased inequality and a lack of diversity in the England squad has not gone unnoticed.

There’s a lot of investment of Muslim women and Muslim girls ... but it’s not just translating beyond grassroots football
Amna Abdullatif, anti-racism campaigner

When City invited the Three Hijabis to speak to the young fans, they heard plenty of things that still make Muslim girls wary.

They were told of concerns around racism, revealing wear and coaches not familiar with the sensitivities.

In the “cultural barriers” often cited to describe reluctant parents they tend to see legitimate concerns.

Young fans at the derby reported the “fear of their families” that they would face anti-Muslim hatred, said Ms Abdullatif.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a lot of investment of Muslim women and Muslim girls in the grassroots game, but it’s not just translating beyond grassroots football,” she said.

“That is the role of the FA, the Premier League, the institutions of football, but also the clubs, in terms of what they need to be doing in order to ensure that young girls from our communities are able to access the game.”

Campaigning work

The three women like to see themselves as having a foot in both camps, as Muslim women and regular fans who also talk to football bosses and politicians.

All three are daughters of Muslim immigrants. Ms Jawad was born in Iraq. Ms Abdullatif moved from Libya as a child. Ms Aziz grew up in Oxford, where she was sat on the city council until recently.

During Ramadan the trio were invited to a Wembley iftar, at which the FA spoke of its interest in connecting faith and football. England boss Southgate sent a video message.

They have not always had an easy time with administrators, telling MPs last year that the FA showed “disrespect and defensiveness” over the Euro 2020 racism petition.

A law change led to a fan being banned from all football grounds for three years in 2023 for abusing Brentford’s Ivan Toney, although not barred for life as the petition had called for.

“One of the biggest things that we feel has changed is how everyone is willing to talk about equality and diversity in sport,” said Ms Jawad.

She said it would help if the UK had an agreed definition of anti-Muslim hatred, so that young women and girls feel an allegation of racism would be taken seriously.

“There’s a real fear and misunderstanding of being called an Islamophobe or a racist, because no-one knows exactly what that is, and so that makes interacting on this issue really difficult,” she said.

“How does the system of football prevent Muslim women from taking part? If we can begin to have that conversation, we can look at ways of removing these barriers.”

Far from seeing the political leadership they would like, the three women have been dismayed by how British Muslims – and football – have been made the subject of culture wars and electioneering.

Ms Aziz was the first Labour councillor in the country to resign over the war in Gaza, after leader Keir Starmer suggested it was valid for Israel to cut off water and power from Palestinians.

With Euro 2024 and the UK’s general election campaign both reaching a finale in early July, her hope is that the summer of sport can show the “best of humanity” at a hard time for Muslims and the world.

She would like to see athletes given licence to speak out about Gaza, or other issues close to their heart – usually a tough prospect with authorities wanting to appear neutral.

“Sport has an opportunity to show the human spirit, to show how incredible our bodies are, and what we can achieve, and I think it’s got a way of uniting people.

“What I’m looking for in the summer of sport is for that unity to take place – not for sportswashing, not for any attempts to pretend that the horrors that are taking place in Gaza and elsewhere in the world are not taking place.

“There are going to be athletes there, playing football, at the Olympic Games, who come from these countries, who have family and friends in these countries.

“If they consciously object to what’s going on, which I do hope they do, I am looking for the International Olympic Committee and the footballing authorities to stand by them – to not fine them, to not silence them, but to stand by them.”

Updated: June 07, 2024, 6:00 PM