Hijab is a state of being, says Amreen Kadwa, a University of Guelph alumna who founded the community organization Hijabi Ballers to help Muslim women and girls become empowered by sports.
“It’s not necessarily a physical covering,” says Kadwa, 24. She explains that while the practice of hijab does include covering the head, it also encompasses the way one speaks and presents themselves.
“It is you as a woman expressing your faith,” she says.
Originally from Scarborough, Ont., Kadwa acquired a deep appreciation for non-profit organizations and community-building while studying economics and international development at U of G. Her degree program instilled in her a passion for helping others and making a difference in the world.
“A lot of people think economics is about numbers and finance, but there is so much of the social sciences involved,” she says. “The program at Guelph really encompassed that and that’s why I chose to go there.”
Her four years spent working as a residence assistant gave her hands-on experience in community development. She learned how to make a community of people feel safe and welcome and how to create programs and services that meet their needs.
Kadwa started playing rugby in high school. She excelled in the sport, which she says gave her strength, confidence, determination and a strong sense of community.
In her first year at U of G, Kadwa tried out for the Gryphons camp, but a serious injury ended her dream of playing varsity rugby.
One summer while at university, she worked for Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF), a non-profit organization that uses rugby to help improve underserved, low-income and priority neighbourhoods.
“It got me involved in this area of community development through sport, seeing the impact of sports in grassroots communities, with kids in schools and camps, in inner-city communities with low income. That got me really involved in that community.”
Using that passion and experience, she started Hijabi Ballers in 2017 to give Muslim women and girls the confidence to participate in sports while showing their Muslim identity.
Hijabi Ballers celebrates Muslim women playing sports and instills pride by sharing stories about what inspired them to play sports and the obstacles they faced, Kadwa says.
Kadwa learned how to make a community of people feel safe and welcome and how to create programs and services that meet their needs.
“For a lot of women on the field, they choose to take off their hijab and don’t go out of their way to identify as Muslim because of the associated discrimination or stereotypes. And for many of these women, there are cultural pressures because participating in sports is frowned upon.”
During her playing days, Kadwa says, she was often the only person on the rugby field wearing the hijab. And while she says it didn’t create problems for her – because of the diverse community she lived in and the supports around her – other Muslim women in sport have a much different experience.
“When you are playing sports, if there are people staring at you when you’re on the field or making comments, it makes the experience of sport negative and makes it hard for them to be themselves while playing sports.”