The first ever female Muslim jockey to race in Britain, Khadijah Mellah, emerged victorious in the Magnolia Cup at the world famous Glorious Goodwood festival today.
When it comes to representation for women in sports, the disparity is even greater. This is especially true for Muslim women, who face disproportionate challenges when it comes to participating in sports that are unwelcoming to their religious and cultural values, and media dialogue that frequently perpetuates negative stereotypes of Muslim women. It’s little wonder that a 2017 study by Sport England found only 18% of Muslim women participate in regular sport, compared to 30% of the entire UK’s female population.
Despite the challenges experienced by Muslim women – including the fact that uniform rules may not always welcome those who cover their hair – there are trailblazing athletes pushing through and paving the way forward for girls and women with sporting dreams. Athletes like Khadijah Mellah, who made history today as the UK’s first ever female jockey to race in Britain wearing a hijab - and emerged victorious at the world famous Glorious Goodwood festival.
The 18-year-old student from Peckham, South London, rode in the all-female Magnolia Cup, an amateur jockey’s charity race, against the likes of Olympic champion cyclist Victoria Pendleton, BBC presenter Alexis Green and TV personality Vogue Williams.
Mellah started horse riding seven years ago when she joined the Ebony Horse Club, a community organisation that helps to raise the aspirations, life skills, education and well being of disadvantaged young people in Brixton. But her participation in today’s race is all the more extraordinary given that she only sat on a racehorse for the very first time in April. Since then, the teenager has been based at Newmarket in preparation for the festival, training intensively for the five-furlong and 110 yards (1,110m) flat race.
“From a young age, I have wanted to be the person that people look up to,” Khadijah told BBC Sport. “I have already started receiving other messages from Muslim girls and it makes me really happy to hear from all these people that I’m affecting positively.”
According to the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation, the number of British Muslim jockeys is in “single digits”. But despite the woeful lack of representation, Mellah has fearlessly defied stereotypes.
“When I ride out in Newmarket I do try to spot any other women of colour and there was only one in over 200 riders,” she continued. “But it doesn’t faze me; it means that I end up talking to loads of people and making great connections, so I’m happy.
“It makes me feel sort of blessed because not many people get the opportunity to represent. It adds a little meaning to life.”
Mellah, who is riding today to raise funds for the Wellbeing of Women healthcare charity, is already the subject of an upcoming documentary, Riding A Dream, about her journey into horse racing. While preparing for her debut race, the talented teenager has also balanced studying for her A-levels and working a part-time job, as well as continuing to help volunteer and mentor younger riders at the Ebony Horse Club every week.
When Mellah rides today, she will take major strides forward to the positive representation of Muslim women in sport, following in the footsteps of athletes like Ibtihaj Muhammad, who became the first hijabi athlete to represent the USA for fencing at the Rio Olympics and went on to win a bronze medal, and Sisterhood FC, a football team for women who wear the hijab.
But even as we celebrate the progress, we also need to acknowledge that the world of sports needs to become vastly inclusive and accessible in order to encourage the involvement of Muslim women and girls. Only then will we see role models like Mellah competing in the spotlight, and changing the narrative of who gets to become an athlete once and for all.
The Magnolia Cup takes place at 1.20pm on 1 August at Goodwood Racecourse.
Image: Great British Racing