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Changing the game: Sports journalist Shireen Ahmed fights for gender, racial equity

‘This will never stop being important,’ says new journalism instructor and RTA grad
By: Lindsey Craig
September 24, 2021
Shireen Ahmed sits in a windowsill with her laptop, soccer ball at her side, looking at the camera

Shireen Ahmed is sports journalist and advocate who focuses her work on issues of discrimination in sport, with particular focus on Muslim women, racism and misogyny. (Photo by Erica Ngao)

Shireen Ahmed is fighting for an equal playing field in sport. 

She’s been doing so not from the pitch itself - but from the sidelines. 

Ahmed, 44, is a Muslim woman and sports journalist.

And in a sea of predominantly white men in her field, the Hijab-wearing mother of four stands out. But it’s far more than her race and gender that sets her apart.

It’s who and what she writes about that makes Ahmed’s work so important.

For a little over a decade, the writer, TEDx speaker, award-winning activist - and new RTA Media Production grad and School of Journalism instructor - has been giving a voice to marginalized members of the sports community. Her focus? Muslim women and those affected by racism and misogyny in sport.

From advocating for the right to equal pay for female athletes, to standing up for the rights of Norwegian handball players to not wear bikini bottoms - and calling attention to the fact that “Muslim women have been shouting about this for years” - to fighting against discrimination of Black, Indigenous and racialized groups, and recently, highlighting the urgency to help female soccer players in Afghanistan escape - Ahmed has been standing up to tell the stories that for far too long, haven’t been told.

Praising sport as one of the most powerful tools of change, the Nova Scotia native and diehard Habs fan says, “Some of the most impactful conversations about racial injustice and gender inequality that I've ever seen have been through the medium of sport.”

Where it began

As she explains in a panel discussion, #Play4Justice, Ahmed first realized her passion about the intersection of gender and race in sport in 1998 when, while playing varsity soccer, she told her coach she had decided to begin wearing a headscarf.

She was promptly eliminated from the team.

“Not because there was a rule that said you couldn’t, but there wasn’t a rule that said you could. And therein was the problem,” she said.

It wasn’t long after that her passion for advocacy in sport was born. Her most powerful weapon? Telling stories.

“Someone said, ‘If these things bother you so much, why don’t you write about it?” So that’s what I did,’ she said.

And, despite not being a journalist by trade (Ahmed studied political science and women’s studies), that’s when, in 2012, her Tumblr blog, Tales from a Hijabi Footballer, was born. 

TSN, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated

Using her blog as a foundation, for years, Ahmed tried to gain traction in mainstream media publications. But her pitches were largely met with silence.

Finally, in recent years, in part due to rising social movements, that began to change.

“I believe the murder of George Floyd was a catalyst that forced uncomfortable conversations to the forefront of sports media,” she said.

And within those conversations, Ahmed’s voice has been prominent. She’s a regular contributor on TSN, and she’s been published or featured in The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, espnW, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Vice Sports, Football Beyond Borders, The National Post, Globe and Mail, CBC, Today's Parent, Best Health Magazine, Chatelaine, Media Diversified Edge of Sports Radio and many, many more.

That’s all on top of her podcast, Burn It All Down, external link, of which she’s co-host and co-creator. It’s the first feminist sports broadcast and the professional achievement of which she’s most proud.

“The podcast began as a DM group to just vent about hate and online abuse and sexism in the industry,” she said. “And then Julie (Julie Dicaro, now emeritus)

came up with the idea of having a podcast … and I was like, ‘What's a podcast?’,” she said with a laugh.

Today, Ahmed and four co-hosts, who rotate hosting each week, have produced more than 350 episodes.

“We need to dismantle and we need to literally burn down the toxicity, the violence, the racism, homophobia, the transphobia, the xenophobia, anti-semitism, ableism - all of it. We need to burn it down and keep sports what we want it to be,” said Ahmed.

Never giving up

Ask her about how far she’s come, and it’s still hard for her to fathom.

“If you told me 10 years ago I'd be publishing on TSN, I don't think I would have believed you... You know, it took me starting a blog and working without pay, and just working and submitting pitch after pitch, and the story being rejected, and not getting answers from editors, and feeling so discouraged, or having pieces killed at the last minute...  You know, I love what I do - but the journey is what helps me appreciate it,” she said, crediting her drive and relentlessness, connections made on Twitter, and her now “dear friend” Morgan Campbell, a fellow sports journalist, as key components in her success.

And with every new byline, media interview or click on the stories she tells - Ahmed is turning heads - many times, of those she never expected. 

“While I was working on my thesis - and like, I had 180 revisions to go through - I got a DM from somebody from InStyle magazine. I'm like, ‘InStyle? I'm like the most non-stylish person I know’. Like, I'm socks and Birkenstocks and track pants like 90 per cent of the time,” she said with a laugh. 

“So, I was like, ‘InStyle?’ But they wanted a piece on the nuances (of reporting on Muslim women and many of the challenges they face in sport). So, I feel like the dial is slowly turning. Sometimes it feels like you're pushing a mountain, but through these types of requests, it also feels like I’m connecting with people that we otherwise wouldn't be having these conversations with,” she continued.

Teaching future journalists

Given her rising profile and the importance of her work, it’s no wonder that the university couldn’t bear to see her go. Within less than a month of defending her thesis, in September 2021, Ahmed returned to the classroom. This time - to teach.

Staying in academia wasn’t a difficult choice - in fact, it was all part of the plan.

“I don't think there's a better journalism school or sports media department in the country,” she said, noting that she chose to take the media production program instead of journalism since she already had numerous bylines under her belt. 

“The Masters of Arts in Media Production is an incredible path for creatives to explore and interrogate research while honing their technical and creative skills,” she said.

“The conversations we're having - the uncomfortable conversations that are happening here that need to happen - I don’t think others (schools) are having them yet,’ she said, also praising her fellow instructors for being committed to the cause.

Only a few weeks into the semester, she’s already making an impact.

“I literally went into the syllabus and was like, ‘Yeah, there needs to be 50 per cent BIPOC writers on this immediately. Absolutely,’ she said. 

“I mean, it’s not like we're going to have one special week where we talk about issues in the margins. We’re not going to make it like a fiesta of social justice, it's going to be embedded into what we teach, in the way that we teach, and we were all in agreement about that,” she said. 

It’s yet another way Ahmed is creating change - from within. By educating future sports journalists on the importance of equity and inclusion, it’s hoped that such principles will play a more prominent role in how sports stories are told - and in turn, be a vehicle for change.

“I think people are trying to be more careful. I know certainly I have friends in the TSN newsrooms that would reach out through like, ‘Hey, we have a question - what do you think about us framing this this way?’” and I think that's really important,” she said. “I'm starting to see that a little more - there's a little bit more humility in the practice of journalism, which is what's needed, because harm reduction is a big piece as we report on these very important stories and struggles.”

‘My mission is larger’

In terms of advice to future journalists, first, she jokes to “take all the free pens and swag you can get.” On a more serious note, she says, “the biggest thing that I've learned is to make friends with sports sociologists and sports historians - because you need context for what you're writing,” she said, adding that while it hasn’t traditionally been done in sports - it should be.

As for what’s next, Ahmed laughs and says that while she’s now teaching and is continuing to freelance, the ink has only just dried on her master’s degree - so she’s not 100 percent sure just yet. But one thing that is clear, her work is far from done.

“It's not about getting my voice heard. My mission is larger. My goal is wider. I want many people to be heard and I refuse to believe there's not enough room at the table. And so if anything, I've shifted from wanting to have my work amplified, to making sure that others are heard too,” she said. 

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