Horse racing is a sport defined by its traditions. But, sporting history is characterised by the continuous breaking of boundaries and expectations. This year at Glorious Goodwood, a renowned festival for flat racing, eighteen year old Khadijah Mellah joined the ranks by becoming the first person to compete in a competitive horse race while wearing a hijab. Not only did she ride in the all female amateur jockey charity race, the Magnolia Cup, but she finished in a groundbreaking first place. Mellah explained in her post race interview that she was “lost for words”. Four months ago she was yet to sit in on a competitive race, but fast-forward to August and she was to win on one of the most prestigious racing grounds. I imagine she was not alone in her astonishment.
Sports are about excellence and competition. But they are also about the promotion of inclusion. In some of the most challenging and dark times in history, sporting events have been used to promote peace and unity. From the Christmas day football match in the trenches to a table tennis tournament in Nepal in 2016, these instances prove that sport can bring us together to “create social good”. Mellah’s win has showed us that we don’t have to be in a devastating crisis for sport to create positive social change.
Perhaps, Mellah’s win has come at a vital time. Unsurprisingly, the participation numbers for Muslim women involved in horse racing is unprecedentedly low. In fact, it is reported to be in single figures, and has been for many years. Horse racing is not an exception to this but rather fits the trend. Sports England conducted a study that found across all sports participation of Muslim women is worryingly low. It discovered that just 18% engage in organised sports on a regular basis, compared to 30% of the UK’s female population as a whole.
Controversy has followed traditional Muslim women’s clothing, such as the burka or hijab, for many years. Muslim women have been banned from wearing the burka in public in France, Austria and Belgium, with countries such as Turkey and Spain introducing a partial ban on the full face covering veil.
However, over the years sporting organisations are slowly lifting the restrictions previously imposed on the hijab. In 2017, the International Basketball Federation overturned a ban on head coverings worn during games. Lifting the ban, which was originally put in place for players safety in fear of the material coming lose and causing accidents, gained large endorsement. Head coverings are still subject to strict conditions such as leaving the face clear and not endangering other players. Nonetheless, the diversity of players gaining equal access to the sport vastly improved.
The best innovations are often sparked by a real need. The sports hijab has been a result of this process. Brunel University has joined this trend by bringing out their own version for their student athletes, and is the first university in the UK to do so. Student Union President, Ranjeet Rathore, explained how it has hugely increased participation among students allowing Muslim women to “keep cool while respecting their beliefs”.
When presenting the Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award, Nelson Mandela explained how sport has the power to change the world. It can inspire and unite people in a unique manner. Historic wins over the years have, at times, spoken volumes against the backdrop of certain domestic policies. During the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, US athlete Jesse Owens winning four gold medals and breaking nine Olympic records arguably sent more of a message to Hitler than the any of the allied forces were able to at that point in time. A leader who was preaching the superiority of an Aryan race was made to take notice of the raw sporting talent of an African American. It did not alter the troubling path of Germany took during the 1930s and 40s, but in their capital city it challenged Nazi Germany’s definition of supremacy.
Heated debate has followed the burka and the hijab for many years, and will likely continue into the foreseeable future. Yet Mellah’s unexpected victory has forced the narrative in a different direction. In a sport surrounded by conservative traditions, she has fought her way into the pack; breaking the mould and changing the game.