Marco Werman: Now to a very different kind of soccer story.
Shireen Ahmed: My name is Shireen Ahmed. I live in Toronto. I am a writer, blogger, community activist, and I am a football player.
Werman: Ahmed was born to Pakistani parents in Halifax, Canada, and growing up sports, specifically soccer, was a big part of her life. She played for her college team until 1997 when she decided to observe a requirement of her faith, Islam. She decided to cover her hair.
Ahmed: I remember my coach for my team that I played with, my club team, for years, being really annoyed by my decision. I barely saw women of color on the field. Forget about ones that were Muslim and that were wearing hijab. That I had never seen, and still, to this day, very rarely see. It was really inconvenient for them. When you're on a team, you're part of a unit and it's like a family. Then to say "well, I'm doing something that will jeopardize this unit," - my teammates were less than supportive. I was angry and upset by that. I was very hurt. I'm still navigating through my own spiritual experience and I didn't have any answers and to feel that I was inconveniencing other people was not a great spot to be in. I don't think that I actually had to choose between Islam and soccer. I don't think that ever has to be a choice. But I was made to feel like that and that was pretty horrible.
I wasn't permitted to play in organized, recognized leagues, so I ended up finding a lot of pick-up soccer. I ended up in a league much later, after my children were born, that allowed Muslim women to play but it wasn't recognized. It was sort of disorganized. I welcomed the opportunity to play, but then I started to want and crave more competition and more organization and referees and two 45-minute halves with proper officiating. I really wanted that again in my life.
I was approached by a woman I knew, our children played on a competitive basketball team together. She said "you play forward, right?" I said "yes." She said "we're looking for a forward." I thought we would give it a try. I called up the head of the league and I said "this is who I am and I'm interested in playing." She said "we would love to have you." I don't know if it was luck or just things changing. I went back 3 years ago to a competitive league and a team with women, which I love and I'm still playing with.
My first moment on the field, I think I felt like I was going to throw up before I got there. I was playing with a new group of women who were all ex-varsity players and some had played in the States in college and were really, really talented and I was nervous. I got the ball and I think when you get the ball, you don't over-think and you just play. I remember just feeling like a kid in a candy store. We were playing under floodlights at night, our games are usually at night, and I just felt so important. My existence was validated at that moment.
When you have something that's an intrinsic part of your life and you feel like it's ripped away from you, and then you're building back, it's a really intense journey. My daughter grew up watching me play and me coach. As much as it's important for me to foster my daughter and encourage her, it's important for my sons to understand that there's nothing abnormal or groundbreaking about it. We're not breaking any ground. We're just existing.