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Self-care and development Inspiring Stories

Muslim Coach a Role Model in Race for Greater Diversity

Tahira Islam is an empowering female role model who has demonstrated that anyone can coach, breaking racial and ethnic stereotypes and raising awareness of the benefits of building a more diverse coaching workforce. Urging other women to not let fears of prejudice deter them from pursuing their passions, she tells Blake Richardson that she has experienced support not setbacks, appreciation not abuse, on her coaching journey

Tahira Islam knows better than anyone the practical, personal, social, religious, and cultural barriers that contribute to the gender gap in coaching.

As a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, who only moved to England from Bangladesh in 2017, and for whom English is not her first language, she has faced a catalogue of obstacles: gender; ethnicity; race; religion; image.

Any or all of the above can prevent women with similar backgrounds from ever contemplating becoming a coach.

Many fear they will encounter prejudicial attitudes or flagrant racism, which tramples over their enthusiasm and their desire to support people in sport and physical activity to become the best that they can be.

But fear not! Tahira’s coaching story demonstrates that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

As Assistant Coach of Cottenham United Colts FC Under-17s Girls, Tahira is the club’s only female coach and the only female Muslim coach registered with Cambridgeshire FA.

She is also a pioneer for the Asian community, and admits: “All in all, it has been quite a learning curve, but I have been massively rewarded by my tenacity to keep at it.”

She hopes that by illuminating key issues that are contributing to a lack of diversity in coaching, and explaining how she successfully navigated each of them, her story will light the way for other women and girls – including young Asian women – to embark on an exhilarating and highly rewarding career in coaching.

“In London, more females from the Asian community are involved in coaching, but certainly in Cambridge, I am pretty sure none of the other coaches are Muslim females.

“I am keen to help other women venture outside their boundaries and give them the drive to be something more.

Whatever your racial, religious or cultural background, I want to show people the way and send a positive message that if you have the drive and the hunger, you can achieve your dreams.”

From cultural roots to grass roots

A lifelong football fan, Tahira found growing up in Bangladesh to be a restrictive environment for pursuing her sporting goals.

She explains that, because of the high population density, there are not a lot of fields for children to play in, especially in cities, which are dominated by high-rise buildings in residential areas.

“Also, my family is quite reserved, so I didn’t have the opportunity to play sports when I was younger.”

Tahira came to England from Bangladesh five years ago after graduating from the University of Dhaka, when she was awarded a scholarship for an Erasmus research project at Staffordshire University. After completing a Master’s degree at the University of Manchester the following year, she secured a full-time job working as a computer engineer for GlaxoSmithKline.

The seeds for becoming a grass-roots football coach had been planted before her arrival in England, but it was at university that they first began to sprout.

“I am someone who has quite a lot of energy and so when I started university, I wanted to start taking part in sports.

I started karate, really enjoyed it and wanted to do something more that benefitted my physical and mental health. I also wanted something that could involve children, because they make you happy, right? Just the small things they do bring a smile to your face and help you live in the moment.”

Her love of football was further cemented by attending the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

After graduating from the University of Manchester, Tahira moved to Cambridge to be with her husband, who works as a doctor at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the city.

And it was at this point in her life that the seeds began to fully blossom.

‘A forward thinking, positive and open club’

Her entry into coaching happened quite unexpectedly, as Tahira explains:

“My faith is quite important to me, and I am a regular at Cambridge Central Mosque. I saw a flyer one day, sponsoring a few places for the Level 1 in Coaching Football qualification with the Cambridgeshire FA.

So, I took a leap of faith and I signed up. I was the only female to do so, along with another ten people from the Mosque.

“It was really enjoyable, but after I got my Level 1 qualification in 2019 it took me a while to find a coaching position because everything was a long way from my home, and I needed good transport links. I know a coach who used to coach with Peterborough United, and he told me about Cottenham United Colts, who were looking for a female coach for their then Under-16s.

“I went to a trial, and they liked me, and they said they would be happy to have me. So, now I am the assistant coach to head coach David Burkett.

“David is amazing. He knows so much about football and is a great coach, who is so passionate and helpful and is always thinking of new ideas and coaching methods.”

The feeling is mutual, with David telling Cambridgeshire FA that it was a pleasure to welcome Tahira to the club:

As a club, we currently have no other female coaches. This has been an ideal opportunity for us as a forward thinking, positive and open club, to help to inspire the next generation of female players and coaches.

“Tahira has really bought into our team ethic with a real enthusiasm and such commitment, and it is always useful to have the opinion and eyes of others.”

The mutual appreciation society extends to the players, with Tahira explaining: “My girls are an exceptional and talented bunch. Okay, they can be a little difficult at times, because they are teenagers, and they don’t always listen to you first time,” she laughs, “but they are so much fun, and we have social events and, through being part of Cambridgeshire FA, sometimes get invited to be ball girls at Cambridge United matches.  

It is the connections you make and the people you meet that make coaching so enjoyable.”

Don’t worry about what other people think of you

Ingrained prejudice, and more subtle but nevertheless harmful unconscious bias, is a barrier preventing women, particularly those from ethnically diverse communities, from getting involved in coaching.

Tahira says she hasn’t experienced discrimination but admits the likelihood of doing so had played on her mind when she took her first steps into coaching.

It is a predominantly white area where I live. What I will say is, this can be a barrier if you make it a barrier. It isn’t so much if you focus on the task, your goal, and not what people think of you.”

What about attitudes within the Asian community. Is it taboo for Muslim women to enter coaching?

“Things are progressing culturally, but initially it was daunting and felt a bit alien. I was nervous and felt a little uncomfortable because I hadn’t done anything like this before and I hadn’t heard of anyone else from my community or background who had gone into coaching either.

“Added to that, my fellow course mates all had much more experience than I did, and they had played football too.

“Fortunately, there was a lot of help and support from the tutor and also from my team-mates – including the others who had signed up from the mosque. Added to that, I worked hard because I wanted to make this work for myself and I quickly built social connections with them, so my confidence grew.

I am a big believer that football, sport and coaching bring people together. I have personally found that it can help us find unity where there is division.”

Building confidence and self-esteem

The biggest barrier Tahira has had to overcome – and she admits she is not there yet – is a lack of confidence in her coaching abilities.

The key to clearing this hurdle, just like those other challenges she has negotiated, will be diligence, dedication, and the ongoing support of colleagues.

“I’ll be honest, I still have confidence issues. Sometimes I can’t deliver as well as David, but he’s been coaching for something like 15 years. Plus, English is not my first language.

My message to other women who may be in my position is that you have to forgive yourself if you can’t always deliver as you’d hoped. The stress of my expectations versus reality was difficult for me at first but if there is a strong support system in place, you will get there. David helped me feel comfortable just being me.

“And my other message to females who may be thinking about getting into coaching and may lack the confidence to take that first step, is that the more you do it, the more it comes automatically, and the more your confidence grows.

“You have to understand what the root cause is that is holding you back.

“That was my biggest barrier, thinking that I wasn’t delivering real value to my girls – who, now they are getting older, want some tactical input as well as just the fun element.

“So, I did something about it.”

That something was joining a club herself.

“I grew up watching football and I thought, why can’t I start playing football? I’m not that old!”

She now plays football every week, which she credits for helping her feel more comfortable when demonstrating techniques and helping her project confidence in front of her players.

Seeing is believing

Britain is a vibrant melting pot of races, religions, and cultures. It is vital that the coaching workforce also reflects the variety and diversity of the people it is there to support.

Reading Tahira’s story will hopefully inspire other girls and women from ethnically diverse communities to follow in her footsteps and take that ‘leap of faith’.

‘If you can see it, you can be it’ is a term that has grown in popularity, in pace with campaigning for the advancement of diversity, inclusion and equality in coaching.

Simply put, Muslim women need empowering Muslim role models to look up to.

Research has shown that role models represent and expand what is possible; inspire women to be more ambitious and aim higher; and demonstrate the mindsets and behaviours that are needed to achieve this rise.

Tahira embodies all these qualities: encouraging more females to pursue a career in coaching, whilst at the same time helping to advance the movement that is striving to make the coaching space welcoming and inclusive to all.

Women Who Coach: Toolkit

Our digital guide features stories from more empowering female role models and advice from leading experts on how to get into coaching and develop your career.

THIS WAY

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