By Dawn Robinson-Walsh
Most right-thinking people were deeply disturbed by the disgraceful racist abuse suffered by talented footballers Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho after the Euros 2021 final where England lost to Italy on penalties. The three young players missed penalties in the 3-2 shootout loss, and (I think many people sadly saw this coming) were then appallingly targeted by haters on social media.
Most people, while disappointed to lose the match, were thrilled that England made it to the final under Gareth Southgate’s leadership in what is known as ‘the beautiful game’; alas, the aftermath was anything but on this occasion.
The abuse that followed, directed at the three footballers, tainted both the match and football generally. Many of us spoke out vociferously against it on social media or in simply talking to friends, but some people were more proactive than that, taking a public stand against bigotry, using the very media that sparked a lot of the conversation in the first place.
So, under the ‘interesting people’ banner, you can ‘virtually’ meet here The Three Hijabis who have set up a petition, with so far well over 1 million signatures, to ban racists (on or offline) for life from football matches.
People were rightly shocked by the level of vehemence and abuse expressed against the young players, including the defacement in Manchester of a Marcus Rashford mural.
In her local paper, the Oxford Mail, one of the trio that comprise The Three Hijabis, Shaista Aziz, wrote:
“To a lot of people of colour, it’s not shocking for us that this is what’s happened. To a lot of our white friends and family, they are shocked and I think that tells a story in itself.”
The Three Hijabis are Muslim women Shaista, Amna and Huda, all England football fans, and all daughters of working-class Muslim migrants. As a trio, supported by others, they have potentially changed the face of English football for the future.
When they heard of the abuse directed at the players, they felt they wanted to metaphorically throw their arms around the England team and give them a hug, especially the three young black players who they feel have been dehumanised by the racist trolling. Here is a 4-minute clip of them talking to presenter Anita Rani on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. Their plan, via the petition, was to drown out racism and show loud and clear solidarity with the English team. They want to spread the inclusivity and representation which they feel is embodied in manager Gareth Southgate.
Shaista Aziz is not new to campaigning and is really driven to rid English football (which she loves) of racism. She is a stand up comedian, a journalist who worked for Al-Jazeera and regularly writes for The Guardian, a Labour councillor, an Oxford City Cabinet Member and anti-racism campaigner. She said on Twitter:
When I was growing up many, many people and communities of colour would avoid going out when an England match was on due to knowing we weren’t safe and would absolutely be at risk of verbal and physical racism dished out by so called England fans. Sadly this risk still exists.
Even at the highest levels of Government, racism persists, with Home Secretary, Priti Patel accused by footballer Tyrone Mings of fuelling the fire that developed after the England match, by dismissing ‘taking the knee’ as ‘gesture politics’. If it was important before, it has become even more important now. The campaign was inspired by the kneeling protest staged by American football star, Colin Kaepernick, in 2016, that has since become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. The gesture grew popular in football last year, following the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a practice, it has encouraged cheers and jeers but Gareth Southgate and the team decided to take it with them into the tournament, choosing to protest oppression, and strengthen the inclusive bond within the team.
As people are quick to point out, the Prime Minister did not condemn those who jeered when players took the knee, either. His condemnation came only later on the Monday after the match, when he realised the strength of feeling about the events that followed. The Duke of Cambridge also took to social media to say:
I am sickened by the racist abuse aimed at England players after last night’s match. It is totally unacceptable that players have to endure this abhorrent behaviour. It must stop now and all those involved should be held accountable.
Ex-footballer, and now commentator, Gary Lineker (who has 8.1 million followers) also complained publicly onTwitter:
Booing and racially abusing the fine young men that play for our country and have given us so much pleasure and joy over the last month is not being an @england fan. That goes for the pathetic fighting at the ground too. It’s a minority but it’s a loud one and it’s embarrassing.
Another of the trio of women friends and football fans is Amna Abdullatif, a community psychologist, and former youth worker, while the final member, Huda Jawad describes herself as a mother, daughter, sister and feminist. Born in Baghdad, she arrived as a refugee, learning English as a teenager. Shaista wrote of Amna that she arrived from Libya as a child. Her family was subjected to daily racism and harassment from far-right groups in the 1990s, often physical in nature, such as stone throwing and having dog excrement posted through the door, but also via name-calling. They have seen and experienced enough.
In an article by Shaista, Huda was described as living near Wembley but never having set foot in the place or seen a football match until she watched the England Lionesses play Germany in 2019. She feels that despite living so close, she cannot attend matches as she feels it would not be safe for her and her sons to attend, for racism in football mirrors wider society. The time has come, not for empty words, but action, which is what The Three Hijabis have chosen, and their efforts have been repaid with immense support. As Huda Jawad says:
To go over one million (signatures)… we feel validated in our resistance to racism and that what we have been able to articulate is the sentiment that is held nationwide …
Amna Abdul explained the reality of the abuse:
These men were abused for simply going to work.
They epitomise how so many black people and people of colour feel when we go to work. They want to work, they want to go and do their jobs, and they got racially abused and dehumanised and treated in such a disgraceful way. That happens to people of colour up and down this country every day when we go to work as well.
Shaista was raised in Oxford, close to the City football ground, and always loved football. It has to be said that one rarely sees women in Hijabs at football matches, which has almost certainly made them stand out; it has had a positive impact on their campaign. Shaista explained their stance:
We are three Muslim women who wear the hijab. You very rarely see Muslim women anywhere, you certainly don’t see them in relation to football. You never see Muslim women talking about football. Representation matters, when you can identify with people it makes you want to change the narrative further. Another reason why we set up the petition is because we wanted to take the narrative back from the racists and the bigots. The narrative we’re reclaiming is that football does not belong to you, it belongs to all of us, it’s our national sport and it’s part of the culture currency in this country.
Their petition calls for the Government, and the FA to introduce a ban, saying:
Our England team stood up for all of us – now we must stand up for them.
There are similar calls for bans on Change.org, but this is the petition that has really taken off. Why? To some extent, it is the passion of these women. They were dismayed that racist comments were still available for all to read on social media platforms days after the event and even after the widespread condemnation and arrests. But also, they were prepared to do something about it.
In the i newspaper, Shaista said:
The way racism is framed is as if it’s a one off incident… it’s not as if one incident happens to one person, and then there’s a backlash and an outcry, and then it stops.
These people are not racist fans, they’re racists.
We remember Fashanu and Barnes getting banana skins thrown at them in the stadium. Now, banana skins are no longer being thrown onto the pitch, but they’re being put online.
So, the campaign may have started in a bar, where their tweet about racism in football went viral, but it also extends far wider than that.
It is about the dismantling of racism and the fact that they really care about the sport and the players, too. That is why these women will change the course of history.