South Asian Women in Sports, is the Lack of Representation Inevitable?

By Esha Nayar

FocusHoops are very pleased to present this column from guest contributor Esha Nayar. Esha is currently studying and plays Basketball for the Manchester Mystics in WNBL D2, the Mystics U18s and Mystics Academy team in the WEABL.

Esha Nayar, Photo Credit: Harry Collins (@hccaptures)

Women in sport is a highly topical conversation. Over the past couple of years, the number of women in sports has increased significantly in comparison to previous years. In the past, the main sports in which women’s participation has been discussed is in the more typically feminine sports such as gymnastics or dance, whereas in the past 5 years, sports which are seen as more masculine, such as football or rugby, have seen an increase in popularity with females. The rise of the Netball Super league has promoted a mainly female dominated sport to young girls who may want to get involved in a team sport and their partnership with Sky Sports gives the sport a bigger platform. Earlier this year we saw the Lionesses finally ‘bring it home’. This was a significant event for women’s football as well as women’s sport as a whole. The majority of the country watched the team achieve something which the men’s team had failed to do. The tournament put women’s football on the radar for many people who may not have been aware of it prior to the 2022 Euros. 

The Lionesses’ victory could be seen as a statement to the country, they demonstrated that they could achieve what the men had strived to achieve for such a long time. Their victory also followed the men’s 2020 euro finals loss to Italy. The fact that they achieved more than the men is highly significant for women’s football as well as women’s sports as a whole. Not only did it put women in sport on the map, but it was also an extremely inspiring event for anyone watching. For a little girl to watch a women’s team achieve something so significant for the country is huge, for one of the first times they were able to watch females in sport achieve something so great.

Having role models is a highly significant factor in getting young girls involved in sports. Now you are able to watch women’s football on Freeview television as the Women’s Super League is now televised on BBC One, this has not been the case until recent years. The lack of promotion of women’s sports may have been a contributing factor to the previous low participation of girls who are involved in sports compared to now. Despite the increase in promotion and recognition, there is still an underrepresented minority- South Asian Women. 

Football is the most watched women’s sport in the UK yet there are only 5 nameable South Asian players that have played at a high level. In the Netball Super league there are no recognisable South Asian players. We can look on a global scale at sports such as basketball which is projected to be the third most popular sport in the world. In the NBA, which is recognised as the most popular basketball league in the world, 81% of players are from an ethnic background and in its female counterpart the WNBA, 83% of players are from an ethnic background. Whilst these stats are taken from the top American leagues, basketball is estimated to be the second most participated team sport in England and its popularity is on the rise.

I am a South Asian Female who plays National League basketball for the Manchester Mystics under-18s and Division Two women’s team. When growing up playing basketball, there were not any role models who were of a similar background to myself in any sports of either gender. Similarly, I can only recall ever playing against two other South Asians in my five years of playing National League. Whilst other people get compared to top level athletes, I am compared to ‘that girl from bend it like Beckham’ despite the fact that she is Sikh and plays football, whereas I am Hindu and play basketball. This is most recognisable piece of media about South Asian girls in sport and can be the only influence in many people’s perceptions of the topic, which can be frustrating at times due to the fact that I am being compared to a fictional character and not a high-level athlete. In addition to this, most of the time the basis of the comparison is the fact that we have the same skin colour.

Over the summer, we saw the return of a highly significant player to the Manchester Mystics, Rehana Khalil. The season prior to this she played for Stockport Lapwings after returning from an 8-year hiatus. In the summer she played for Great Britain over 35s and in the past, she has represented Great Britain under-20s. Rehana is a Pakistani, Muslim woman who has played at an international level, this is something which we do not often see in a western society. She also plays wearing the hijab and dresses modestly for her faith. 

Rehana Khalil dribbling the ball, photo credit Harry Collins (@hccaptures)

The fact that Rehana plays in a hijab is highly significant as it is an outward symbol of Islam which is inspiring for young Muslim girls to see. The media often presents Islam in a negative light which has led to widespread negative connotations of Islam as a whole amongst the British population, “People don’t see it as right that if you’re a Muslim woman that you’re running around playing sports in front of people” as Rehana said. Practises such as dressing modestly have negative misconceptions such as it being seen as oppressive. Rehana confidently portrays her religion and beliefs whilst participating in basketball at an international level. This also removes the idea that young Muslim girls may feel separate as they are able to see someone who celebrates her religion playing at such a high level. Dressing modestly may be a barrier for many young girls, the idea that they may have to dress in a different way to their teammates may deter them from sport. Furthermore, if teammates are uninformed of Islam, they would not have a full understanding leading to a lack of support from them. By Rehana competing at such a high level whilst outwardly practising her religion, not only is she inspiring so many young girls, but her representation is also helping to tackle Islamophobia by breaking down all the negative connotations and misconceptions surrounding Islam. It also says to any young Muslim girls that may be watching that dressing modestly is not a barrier when playing sport, as she said, “There’s always a way”. 

For me, the addition of Rehana to the team brought more than just the addition of an outstanding player, it was the first time that I had ever played with another South Asian. It was also the first time that I would have a role model who is of South Asian descent. From an outside perspective it may not seem that big of a deal, but it gave me a role model to look up to who is from a similar background which is something that I have never had the luxury of experiencing before.

Esha Nayar shooting a free throw, photo credit Harry Collins (@hccaptures)

The importance of having a role model of a similar background is of extreme importance, especially when considering reasons for lack of participation. It could be argued that by having someone of a similar background to look up to makes a sport more welcoming, when seeing someone of your ethnicity doing successfully it inspires you and makes you believe that you can do the same. You can always acknowledge a talented athlete as a role model but when the person is of the same background, it feels more personal.

In an attempt to grasp a greater understanding of why we see so few South Asian girls involved in sports, I conducted a survey in which I asked 30 South Asian girls aged 17-18 on their opinions on the matter. From my survey, 63% of girls said that they would have been more likely to participate in sport if the coach were from the same background as them, a further 33% said that if the coach wore a hijab that they would be more inclined to join in. From these figures we can conclude that even just having someone from a similar background can stimulate girls to participate. We can also conclude that having role models plays a significantly large factor in participation, when asking if a lack of role models from similar backgrounds played a part in why they did not participate in sports, 87% of the girls said that this was a factor.

When informing Rehana, who coaches girls’ basketball, of these numbers she stated that, “It’s a shame that it’s like that but I think it’s a really positive thing”. She recognises the fact that some of the young girls that she coaches may recognise her as a role model, “Not out of choice”, she mentioned, “I think when you’re involved in it then the kids automatically may see you as a role model”. Having her as a coach opens up the sport to many young South Asian girls who may have been reluctant to participate otherwise, it gives them someone they know they can relate to.

Whilst role models play a large part when looking to increase South Asian participation in sports, the influence of role models can only take you so far. There are many reasons why a young girl may feel discouraged from participating in sports, one of which may be due to cultural influences.

In South Asian culture, the role of the woman is seen as more domestic compared to that of a man’s role. Sport for girls is not largely promoted within South Asian culture as it is seen as more of a masculine thing, as Rehana said, “It’s not seen as sport is what the ideal woman should be doing, it’s more like being at home family, kids and all that”. In addition to this, when carrying out my survey, many people felt as if sport is not promoted as an option especially for girls.

We could link this back to the fact that there is a lack of South Asians on the main stage of sport. The lack of encouragement for girls to engage in sports may be driven by the limited number of people to aspire to be like. Perhaps if there were more South Asian women in sport, it may alter the attitude towards women in sport and therefore reduce the reluctance that parents may have when allowing their daughters to participate. Whilst this is a possibility, it is not a very realistic one. The role of the female and the attitude towards women in culture cannot be shifted so easily, to attempt to shift a whole cultures attitude would be a process that would take decades.

Many of these cultural factors also go hand in hand with social factors. The lack of support from parents can stem from this. If parents have emigrated to England from another country, they may not have the knowledge and understanding of sports structures to be able to help their child start a sport outside of school, they may not even know where to take them. This prevents opportunities from being presented to some girls. In addition to this, being able to support their children in sports outside of school may not be possible. The main focus of the parents may be to provide for their children through work in an oppose to making the commitment of supporting their child through their sporting journey. 

People may also feel pressured by their parents or family to pursue a career. When I carried out my survey, multiple people referred to the fact that their parents had wanted them to focus more on academics as opposed to extracurricular activities. There is lots of pressure to pursue a career which is seen as ‘academic’. Due to the large pressure on a career, people may also feel an additional pressure to do exceptionality well in school, there is an emphasis on doing particularly well in STEM subjects. One individual that I spoke to felt as if there is no time for them to invest in extracurricular activities such as sport, but they recognise the physical, social and mental benefits that partaking in sporting activities can have, but they simply cannot commit due to pressure from parents to do well academically.

The large emphasis on academic success leads to arts, media and sports to not being viewed as an option at all. Being involved in a sport is sometimes seen as a hindrance to academics due to all the time the countless training sessions and matches take up, it seems as if there is no time for schoolwork or revision. Whilst it may take up a large portion of your time, if you are good enough at a sport, it can aid you academically, for example the DiSE programme which is offered across all sports and aims to support young athletes to achieve their full sporting potential as well as gaining an additional qualification. Scholarships are also offered by some universities for athletes who are good enough that the university see them as a benefit to their team.

It could be argued that the media’s negative portrayal of ethnic groups leads to lack of participation. If people see things being said about their ethnic group or religion in the news which presents them in a negative way, this may put people off wanting to get involved with a sport as they think that because the news is seeing them in a certain way, that everyone must view them from that angle. This is true to a certain extent as people’s perspectives and views on topics such as immigration or race and religion can be heavily impacted by the media in which they consume. Ultimately, if people see negative things being said about their ethnic group or religion, this could deter them from participating, “I think what you see in the news obviously with a bit of racism and stuff like that I think maybe people from a South Asian background are a bit reluctant to join into sport then because of what people say or what they’ve heard in the news or  what they’ve experienced” said Rehana.

When looking at South Asian participation it is important to not consider South Asians as one race but to also consider the ethno-religious factors that may play a part as other people’s perceptions of culture or religion can avert participation. If the people around you are unable to inform or educate themselves on your religion, they are unaware of what you are able to do or not to. They are also unaware of things such as religious holidays, practises and foods which you may or may not be allowed to eat. Rehana said, “Something as simple as Eid and fasting like they still don’t get it and you still get questions like oh so you’re not allowed to eat at all”, or when it is Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, not only are most people unaware of the festival, some are unaware of Hinduism as a whole. Peoples lack of understanding of other cultures and religions could drive people away from getting involved, some of it could be due to ignorance but as Rehana said, “Part of it’s just people not interested enough to know about it”. If your teammates are unaware of your religious or cultural practises, this may put people off playing as it can make people feel uncomfortable knowing that they are playing in an environment in which people are uninformed of their culture or religion. 

Rehana Khalil taking a layup, photo credit Harry Collins (@hccaptures)

Ultimately, when looking at increasing participation, there has to be something available for all girls to access before we can look at individual groups. If there are not sessions available for girls who do want to participate, then how can we increase participation. For most sports, it becomes increasingly difficult to start playing it the older you get, “I think by the time you reach year nine, so like fourteen fifteen, I think you’ve made a decision and if by that time you’ve not engaged in a sport and you’re not part of a session, it’s very unlikely you’re going to take it up” said Rehana. If we look at basketball as an example, there is a very limited number of sessions available for a fourteen or fifteen year old girl who does not play for a National League team to attend which is female led, as Rehana said, “Those who don’t play national league, what is there for them”. If we then look at sessions that are led by a South Asian person, there is an even lower number of sessions available for that group of girls who can relate, “Which makes it difficult for these girls to know well where can I play, what can I do” as Rehana said.

Whilst many social, cultural and religious factors may prevent someone from participating in sport, if these girls do not want to engage, “If they don’t want it, they’re not gonna do it, simple”, as Rehana said. But for those who do, it is important that those sessions are available, we can talk about the lack of participation but if there isn’t sessions available that are either targeted at girls from a certain background or available for those girls to attend then it makes it extremely hard to get that group of girls involved, “It’s easy to turn around and say oh that woman’s not gonna play cos she wears a hijab”, said Rehana, “She might want to but what session is available for her”.

When looking at what sporting bodies can do to help increase participation, they could look to promote sessions in an attempt to encourage girls to get involved, but ultimately, there are many social, cultural and environmental factors which play such a large role in why South Asian girls aren’t engaged in sports, “I think having role models is the way forward for that, if I think of basketball in England there isn’t anybody else who I’ve seen in England who’s from a South Asian background” as Rehana said.

Rehana’s message to any young South Asian girls who want to get into sports, “Do it if you enjoy it and there’s always ways around barriers, whether that’s environmental, whether it’s the clothing, whether that’s family, things that get in the way, there’s always a way. If you want to do it there’s nothing wrong with doing it, but you’ve got to put yourself out there and do it.”

4 comments

    • Such an in depth article and one which I hope paves the way for change. I would welcome you to speak to our young female students about opportunities in sport for them and to give them some of the valuable representation that you and Rehana so sadly lacked!

      Liked by 1 person

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