by Kelsey Harper
Driven by a love of basketball, Fitriya Mohamed challenges societal norms and fights stereotypes as a Muslim female athlete. Along the way, she’s shining light on the beauty and strength within her religion.
The Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League (MWSBL), it seems, was meant to be.
“It’s something I actually wrote in my phone three years ago,” Fitriya shares. “I truly believe that what you think, say, and write down does come true if you work towards it.”
“You just have to believe in yourself and believe that there's a community that needs what you are envisioning. Put in the work, and eventually, more people will believe in you and support in any way that they can.”
The league, and the community whom it represents, was born out of Fitriya's passion for basketball and mission to advocate for Muslim female athletes like herself.
“I noticed the lack of inclusivity in terms of other organizations, but I didn’t feel like I found the right people around me to support,” she explains. “Most times you're the only person in the community believing the same movement.”
“If you don't have people that see your vision – what you're fighting for, what you're advocating for – it's harder to get everyone on board.”
Inspiration came from meeting a fellow athlete and woman of faith who shared Fitriya's vision. After suffering a career-threatening injury, rugby player Amreen Kadwa founded Hijabi Ballers to recognize and celebrate the athleticism of Muslim girls and women. The organization has an international reach and represents three things: being a female of Muslim faith, being an athlete, and being a boss.
As if Amreen were describing her personally, Fitriya was moved by the realization that she wasn’t alone.
“I’d been an athlete for a while and I never saw something like [Hijabi Ballers] before, but knowing that there’s someone else that believes in what I believe in means a lot,” she shares.
“After meeting Amreen, I got to network with these amazing women that are on a mission to change perspectives and lead change in the community.
Fitriya sought to start a similar organization, and her idea for a basketball league dedicated to bringing Muslim women together came in to focus. Amreen encouraged her to apply for a grant from the city of Toronto and helped her through the process of getting the Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League (MWSBL) off the ground.
“When the grant came, she said ‘you see, it’s meant to be,’” she shares.
While the MWSBL is currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fitriya is continuing her work to unite a global community while completing her master’s degree at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.
Beyond the local community, Fitriya wants to encourage and educate Muslim and non-Muslim organizations to be more inclusive of female athletes. The MWSBL and Hijabi Ballers are transformative examples, but Fitriya points out that small and simple actions, such as posting educational materials about sports and understanding the basics of Islam, are just as powerful.
“It shows to the young girls and Muslim females that want to be in [sports]; this organization believes in you.”
Born in Oromia, Ethiopia, Fitriya came to Canada with her mother and five siblings when she was 10 years old. Sports weren't something that she consciously considered in her home country.
“I didn’t participate when I was back home, I just watched, learning as I go,” she explains. “It wasn’t something I saw myself doing because there weren’t other women or girls doing it.”
“In the Muslim and Oromo culture - it wasn’t promoted or encouraged for girls to be physically active because it was seen as a masculine thing.”
Fitriya, however, was paying close attention.
“I didn’t realize that I was observing at a young age, but that’s exactly what I was doing,” she recalls.
The move to Toronto, and being raised by a single mom in a family with four sisters and one brother, opened up new perspectives and possibilities. Toronto, with its rich culture of diversity, and a family full of strong women proved to be the perfect environment to awaken her dormant passion for sports.
A school class that most people take for granted helped pave the way.
“When I came to Canada there was a girls-only gym class, and I’m like, ok, I can participate and do what I want without being judged or without feeling like I’m breaking the religion’s rules,” says Fitriya. "This was before I was aware there's no restriction on [Muslim girls] being physically active.”
“I loved physical education; it was my favorite class. Most people say it’s not a class, but it was a class to me. I truly loved it.”
Beyond the thrill of participating, Fitriya was guided by her teacher’s support and intuition.
“My gym teacher was very encouraging of me to take part in being active and never let me sit on the bench,” she recalls. “I feel like she knew me and read my mind that I actually liked what I was doing.”
From this early connection, and with continued encouragement from teachers and coaches, Fitriya grew into a three-sport high school athlete. She earned MVP honors in badminton and basketball and was named female athlete of the year her senior year.
“After putting the hard work in, I said, ok - I’m an athlete - I deserve the title.”
Athletic skills alone would have taken her in one direction, but basketball captured her heart.
"I'm so much better at badminton, it’s the sport that I’m truly good at,” Fitriya says. “But I decided not to go in that [direction] because I felt there weren’t enough people that look like me.”
“In basketball, although maybe not at the hijab level - in terms of female, Black, diversity - I was able to relate more. It's the sport that truly fits with my culture and how I was raised, and for that reason, I was just more passionate about it."
This passion drove a relentlessness that has helped shape Fitriya's physical and mental character. She knows what she wants, and has developed deep inner confidence that blocks outside unproductive noise.
"I don't take anything to offense because I'm confident in myself,” she asserts. “I feel like confidence is so key when you’re different from the rest of society. If you’re not confident at what you’re doing, it’s harder for you to chase your passion.”
Much of this confidence was forged on courts like the one at her local community center, where Fitriya fought for her place and demanded to be treated equally.
"They had Monday night training for three hours, so every Monday I was there,” she explains. “It was actually coed, so I was playing with guys at this point. There were a few times I got hurt, but I didn’t care. I got back up and went back to playing because I didn’t want to give the guys the idea that they have to go easy on me because I’m a girl.”
“I am a basketball player, treat me like one; I'm here to play ball. That’s literally my mentality.”
She credits sports for critical aspects of her growth as a young woman, and for honing skills that translate to other parts of her life.
“Sports has created and built skills I never would have learned any other way,” Fitriya says. “Leadership is such a big one. Being a leader in sports helped me be a leader in different areas of my career.”
Still active, Fitriya seeks to break more barriers as she studies for a career in the sports industry. She knows the path will be lonely and is driven by the challenge.
“When I was studying Sports Management for my undergrad, most of the time, I was the only Black female and person of color in the room, and on top of that, a Muslim. That wasn’t normal, but it was [inspiring] in so many ways. Which is the reason why I decided to pursue my master’s.”
Fitriya's foray into advocacy started at home, wanting to be treated as equal to her brother. He was also a basketball enthusiast, but moved more freely and without question.
"I was challenging my mom in terms of ‘why are you putting restrictions on me but not my brother?'" she says. “She understood that I was passionate about the sport, but she never thought about it because at her age - when she was back home - she never got that opportunity.”
Others soon learned the strength of Fitriya's convictions.
“I kept on challenging people around me,” Fitriya shares. “You shouldn't say I'm not allowed to do something because of my gender, and on top of that, you shouldn't use the religion to back something up that isn't true.”
While continuing to advocate and fight for what she felt was her basic right, she began to wonder why the question of Muslim female participation in sports continued to come up. True to form, she took it upon herself to do her research.
“I discovered that it doesn’t say anywhere in the Quran that Muslim females are not allowed to participate in sports,” she explains. “Rather, the religion advocates for all Muslims to be physically healthy and take care of their bodies, which is playing sports.”
"Inside the Muslim community, there's a lack of knowledge of what a sport can do for someone, an athlete, or a female athlete specifically.”
“When I say I’m an athlete, I get that question, even by non-Muslims; ‘you play ball?’ Yup, I play ball, why is that shocking?”
It’s shocking, according to Fitriya, because the Muslim faith gets unfairly associated with the culture of certain countries where Islam is the predominant religion.
“The religion of Islam does not anywhere say to put a woman down,” she says. “Islam actually looks at and promotes women to be treated as queens.”
“If you do your research, you'll understand that it's the countries’ culture that’s [putting women down] when in reality Islam does not advocate or promote that type of oppression on women whatsoever,” she continues. “The religion and culture contradict. In reality, you have to behave in a modest way, but religion doesn’t say women are not supposed to play sports.”
With her convictions reaffirmed, Fitriya carried on with an even greater sense of purpose, and proud of her unique place in society.
“I was in the moment, in the zone. I was confident in what I was doing, and I knew I wasn’t wrong,” she shares. “It’s not normal for people to see a Muslim female in the sport industry, so in [this] way I saw myself as an activist.”
Her advocacy lives in perfect harmony with her strong Islamic faith, not in conflict with it. Fitriya's drive for Muslim female athletes to be widely accepted and understood runs directly through society’s ability to see the beauty of her religion.
One of the most common and visible stereotypes centers around the hijab being viewed as a suppressive garment that Muslim women are forced to wear. As a hijabi, a woman who chooses to wear a hijab, Fitriya is a role model for its true meaning.
“What we believe in Islam is that hair is one of those things that shows your beauty, and that a male shouldn’t have to be attracted to you because of your [physical] beauty,” she explains.
“Beauty should be within the inner heart.”
Such is the meaning of all modest attire that Muslim women are often seen wearing and, unfortunately, unfairly judged by.
“In terms of the outside community, there’s just a lack of knowledge,” she explains. “They still believe that Islam is this religion that oppresses women which is not true. People that have little knowledge make it seem like they know a lot, and it’s spreading false information.”
The falsities or standards brought to bear through misinterpretive cultures and family legacies, threaten equal opportunities for women and young girls within the Muslim community.
“Even now there are parents that are very restrictive of their girls participating in sports because they still don’t understand,” Fitriya says. “Sometimes I wonder if my father was in the picture, would I still be an athlete?”
“The older generation are very protective in that way, but I don’t think that’s protective. They’re restrictive on what a female can do.”
Throughout her life, Fitriya has only looked forward to life's possibilities with a powerful disregard for dissenting and baseless opinions that sought to keep her from doing things that she had every right to do.
“I was one of those girls that was like, ok, cool that’s what they think? No problem, because that doesn’t affect me,” she shares. “I already had the confidence in me so what you say doesn’t even matter anymore.”
Through a complex journey of challenges, support, judgment, and encouragement, Fitriya is proving to be a light. Her light shines well beyond Muslim female athletes, through to a legion of young women who aspire beyond the box that society wants to put them in.
Her rallying cry is self-belief.
"Keep pushing and keep believing in yourself, and keep having confidence in yourself. That's what takes you further. Most times people are not going to believe in you, and people are not going to respect you.”
“But if you believe in yourself, that’s the power.”
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