On football and identity: what does it mean to be a female Muslim football fan?



By Sanaa Qureshi

I’ve been an Everton fan for as long as I can remember. I watched us win the FA cup in 1995, survive relegation on goal difference at the end of the 1997 season and finish 4th in 2005. The current season has exceeded my expectations and I can’t imagine ever not feeling those butterflies in the pit of my stomach just before kick-off.

I’m used to having to prove my football credentials, not just because I’m a woman but also because I’m Pakistani. A culture that is widely perceived as oppressive and unforgiving for women, it always seems to come as a surprise to people that orientalist stereotypes may not actually be true. Not only was I encouraged to take an interest in watching football, I played the beautiful game throughout my childhood and teenage years, eventually giving up playing competitively for personal reasons.

Born and raised in Birmingham, I’m also used to being asked why I’m an Everton fan, with people bemusedly searching for any hint of a scouse accent. I’ve never lived in Liverpool and I have no physical connection to Everton. I’ve only ever been to Goodison Park once and have seen Everton on the road around eight or nine times. For a working class Pakistani Muslim woman, the lack of physical closeness and connection to Everton is arbitrary.

Football is widely considered a universal language, a useful tool to break down boundaries, something that brought me to the work of Football Beyond Borders. However, it wasn’t until a conversation I had recently that I really began to assess the role football has played in creating a safe imagined space for my own belonging and, more specifically, why my connection to Everton remains so deep.

For working class Pakistani immigrants, the search for a place to belong is a tireless one. ‘Fitting in’ is an ongoing conflict that doesn’t just end when you speak English like all the other white kids at school and let them bastardize your name until it’s unrecognizable. I was born here. I’ve only ever really known what living feels like here in England but I have had to navigate an environment where my community is seen as a threat to national security and unwilling to assimilate. The continuously touted failure of multiculturalism feels like I am being repeatedly told to try harder, be less brown, be less muslim and ultimately, go home.

There are a number of ways immigrants try to overcome feeling like outsiders. Moulding and hiding parts of their lives in order to create an identity that is ‘acceptable’. I’ve seen brown men twist and contort their accent as though that’s going to disguise the colour of their skin, aunties embarrassed to wear shalwaar kameez (traditional Pakistani clothes) in public, kids that refuse kebabs for their lunch – the constant fear that people will remember the hyphen after the British in their identity.

Until recently, I felt I had negotiated the complexities of being British-Pakistani and Muslim without shrinking and apologising. A result of the struggles of the generation that came before, I had been taught to wear my brownness and muslimness with pride (we can talk about how problematic ‘pride’ as a facet of identity is another day). It was only when questioned about my relationship to Everton that I began to take apart what exactly football means to me in practice. I have been using football as a tool of temporary assimilation and acceptance. I’ve sat at awkward dinner parties with people whose realities will never come close to my own and have switched the conversation to football because I’m almost certain there will be some common ground. In uneasy situations, I have asked potentially hostile white men whether they think Baines is the best left-back in Britain or if Defoe really is capable of leading the line for England. I have drawn attention to one part of myself in order to deflect from the other – being a Pakistani woman.

For me, it’s uncomfortable to have to come to terms with my own complicity in creating and perpetuating a respectable or safe identity, even if it is to survive in a sea of whiteness and mythical Britishness. Despite this unsettling realisation, football remains more than just a tool for navigating disconnect in social situations and is an important part of my identity. It has been a useful avenue to better explore and understand values that are important to me in practice, none more so than through being an Everton fan.

Although I remember the reigns of Joe Royle and Walter Smith, the tenure of David Moyes during my formative years was perhaps the most instrumental in cementing my personal connection with Everton. He embodied the intense work ethic and determination that became a mainstay for the current squad – the ability to achieve more as the sum of its parts. He fostered unity and brotherhood, each player working hard for the others. These themes are mirrored in the narrative of working class immigrants who use the collective power of a community to navigate unfamiliar systems and survive the expectations of two continents, cultures and identities. The idea of a loyal, tight-knit group of people without an embarrassment of riches scraping together to build something resonated strongly with my own realities.

Nevertheless, despite my deepening connection to Moyes’ Everton, this could only manifest itself in a subscription to Sky Sports and occasionally buying some kit. Even if I had lived in Liverpool, it’s unlikely I would have attended more than a handful of games. For a Muslim woman of colour, finding safe spaces is a continuous and necessary activity but as a football fan, this means avoiding stadiums full of intoxicated white men involved in the kind of tribalism that won’t get you bombed. I’ve been in stadiums alongside Everton fans, the kind of people I shared highs and lows with every weekend, and overheard racial slurs, misogynistic insults, casual banter about the threat of muslims and immigrants destroying the country they hold so dear. What is this imagined connection worth if my existence is so violently dismissed? What does the temporary and arguably superficial bonding of backing the same team actually amount to?

These are not the types of incidents that make the back pages and evoke public outrage but they certainly alienate people that identify as football fans from supporting their team in the same way as others. I happily watch football at home because no atmosphere will ever be good enough for me to give up my safe space. It’s also important to note that these attitudes are also not just contained to stadiums and football pubs; these fans exist in the real world too, opening their newspapers to find their thoughts echoed by wider society.

While I am far too invested in the beautiful game to be driven away, it is becoming increasingly important for me to continuously interrogate my relationship with football and Everton within the constructs of white supremacy and patriarchy.

(Article republished with author’s permission.Source: http://fbeyondborders.tumblr.com)


About Black Feminists Manchester

This is a group for women who are ‘black’ in the political sense. I.e: women who self- identify, originate or have ancestry from global majority populations (i.e. Africa, Asia, Middle East and Latin America) multi heritage and indigenous backgrounds.
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One Response to On football and identity: what does it mean to be a female Muslim football fan?

  1. Samrin says:

    Great article! From a Bayern Munchen fan with no personal connection to Germany but from a football crazed Muslim family.

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