As a Black Muslim, a neonatal nurse in the NHS, and a mother of three, Zainab Alema did not see many women like her playing rugby while growing up. Now, she is on a mission to be England’s first Black, Muslim female rugby player, she revealed to the House of Rugby.
Sometimes, all it takes is for one person to break into a field and be that role model for others, and that is what Alema intends to do with rugby in England. Alema, nicknamed Bulldozer, currently plays for Barnes Rugby Club.
She fell in love with the sport as a teenager hopes to excel to the national level. “I was 14 when I first got my hands on a rugby ball and I fell in love …I want to be the first Black Muslim woman to play for England. I actually only decided during the lockdown,” Alema said.
Alema has been a fighter since she beat the odds of being born prematurely at 26 weeks. She calls it an innate drive to succeed. “If I want to do something, I try my hardest to get it done.”
Another encounter at a PE lesson when she was 17 made her think of professional rugby and her PE teacher got her a stint with Ealing Trailfinders, but it was actually in university that she made up her mind to go for it.
The most baffling thing was the culture shock that came with being the only non-white Muslim player who would not indulge in alcohol after a game. This made her feel lost most of the time. “That was a culture shock if I’m honest,” Alema said.
“I was the only black person in my team, the only Muslim person in my team and I was the only one that didn’t drink on my team. There was a lot going on and I really felt out of place.”
Now, she is nursing an injured hamstring and still training while fasting as part of Ramadan. She, however, said there is the need to train with caution because one cannot drink water when fasting. “You have to be careful and know your body. I train close to sunset, so I can break my fast, and then sometimes I train after I break my fast. I don’t do anything silly like going for a run during the day because that’s not really advisable,” she explained.
Despite the lack of representation, the wording in the rugby laws reassured Alema that she needed to blaze her trail in the game and now there is no stopping her. “It said there in Black and white under the clothing section that you can wear a headscarf to play. And for me, it was such a relief because up until that time, I didn’t feel like I belonged just because I didn’t see anyone that looked like me,” she said.
For Alema, this is the green light she needed all along to pursue her passion for rugby.
“I truly believe that if I get in that England shirt, I’m going to open up rugby to a new audience, people that I’m trying to reach out to play rugby will then be thinking, ‘Oh, look at Z, she’s a black woman, she’s wearing a hijab, she’s playing rugby. Maybe I can give it a go.'”
Recently, Alema’s team welcomed another Black player because she set the precedent, the ambitious player told Sky Sports. That is the power of representation at play.