Photographer Alice Mann was selected for the adidas Breaking Barriers commission. Organised by Studio 1854 (British Journal of Photography’s creative agency) in collaboration with adidas, the project awarded Mann £10,000toexplore women’s football clubs in London.
“Football is in my DNA. Whether I am watching it or playing it, it is in my DNA,” says Yasmin, the founder of Sisterhood FC – a South-London based women’s football club for Muslim women, which photographer Alice Mann documented for the adidas Breaking Barriers commission. Yasmin’s father was an avid player, as was her grandfather. In Somalia, where Yasmin grew up, people would travel from different areas to watch them play. “My Dad still plays with my little brother sometimes,” she continues, “he is still fit for his age, even though he is not as active as he used to be.”
Today, Yasmin lives at home in South London with her parents, 12-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister. She is in her second year at Goldsmiths, University of London, studying Education Culture & Society. Alongside this she has a full-time job and runs Sisterhood FC, which involves a huge amount of admin, including managing a Whatsapp group of 40 fledgling players. It is a mystery how she keeps on top of it all. But, Yasmin is driven by a dedication and commitment to the women she coaches, along with a wider vision to bring about change. “We are a community and all support each other,” she says. “It is more than just us playing football. We have a sisterhood.”
Yasmin hopes that this sisterhood will extend beyond her team. “Obviously, I started Sisterhood FC but I am working to make this into an organisation now,” she explains. “We are basically a minority within a minority – we should be accepted, it is 2019.” Indeed, the pitch is not an easy place to be a Muslim woman. In 2007, FIFA banned the hijab. Over the next seven years it proceeded to lift the ban, before reinforcing it, and then tentatively amending it once again – alienating thousands of girls and women from football in the process. The ban was permanently lifted in March 2014.
Despite this, football remains relatively unaccommodating to the requirements of its Muslim players, particularly women – a reality that impacted Yasmin’s relationship with the sport from a young age. Moving to the UK from Somalia aged nine, she began to take football seriously after her primary school sports teacher recognised her innate talent – setting up an all-girls team to nurture Yasmin’s skill. “Everyday I would play with all of the boys,” she remembers. “I would never be picked last even though I was a girl. If a new boy came to the area, and did not pick me because I was a girl. The other boys would say: ‘Are you crazy that is Yasmin. She is good – pick her, pick her’.”
It was here that Yasmin was scouted by Charlton FC, but the sport’s hostility towards her religion got in the way: “My Mum said but you are wearing a ‘headscarf’ – you cannot be wearing a headscarf and playing in shorts. And it seemed unlikely that a coach would let me play in a headscarf and tracksuit.” Yasmin remained committed to the sport despite this. On starting secondary school, she played with the older girls. And, in college, the boys: “I was the only woman in the cage playing with six-foot-four, hench guys. And they played rough. But, I would still be there because I did not have any other options.”
Yasmin is vocal about her skills. A quality, which drew photographer Alice Mann to her. “Yas is so interesting,” says Mann. “When you talk to her about football, she is so unabashed by the fact that she is so good, which is refreshing given that everyone is so self-effacing all the time.” On commission for Studio 1854, in collaboration with adidas, Mann spent two weeks working with London-based women’s football clubs. It was the human element of the project that interested her most: “The work does not need to be about these individuals as football players – it can be about them as people in the context of the sport.”
Mann’s portraits of Yasmin and her team embody a sense of who the players are as individuals and in the context of Sisterhood FC. “I like to have time for things to develop in an organic and natural way,” says the photographer. “So I am able to respond to people as they might to me.” This fluid and reactive working approach allowed her to create an honest depiction of the women she encountered. “I wanted to make something that was intimate and soft,” she explains. “It is about creating a mood, which is what I have tried to do.”
Her sensitive manner enabled Mann to blend into situations that she may have otherwise disrupted. This was particularly important when photographing Sisterhood FC. The team was conceived out of Yasmin’s drive to provide a safe space for its Muslim members – a place for them to practice the sport without judgement and in line with the requirements of their religion. The idea developed from Yasmin’s personal experience. Starting at Goldsmiths in September 2016, she initially joined the university’s all-women team. “I got along with everyone,” she says. “But, the culture was quite different. Before then, I don’t think I’d ever been to a pub.” She recounts her first time, remembering the difficulty of sitting there sober surrounded by people who were drunk.
By the start of her second year, Yasmin was determined to become less distracted and refocus on her religion. It was while attending an event at the University for Ramadan that the idea for Sisterhood FC was born. “I was introducing myself: ‘I am Yasmin, I do Education Studies and I am on the women’s football team,” she remembers. “And all these girls were so shocked. They were like ‘you play football, oh my god, are you serious? We should start our own football thing.’ It was just an idea and then we were like ‘why not’. Farhiya made an Instagram and that was it.’’
Yasmin and Farhiya, the team’s Vice president, proceeded to approach every Muslim girl they saw on, and around, campus – inviting them to attend a training session. Initially, most women came because it provided a form of exercise and a way to de-stress from university. But, as the months went by the players became more serious. “At first, I could say that I was one of the best players, but now I cannot, “says Yasmin. “There are girls on my team who are better than me.” Despite the team constantly growing and improving, a lack of funds remains an issue. Sisterhood FC is independent from Goldsmiths meaning it does not receive any support. With many of the players from low-income backgrounds, affording the most basic kit can be an issue.
“We had our first tournament and I realised that the majority of girls did not have football trainers,” says Yasmin. “I was the only one that had them. So I went and bought kit for people ahead of the first game.” The gesture encapsulates the ethos of a team who are committed to supporting each other above all else. The pitch provides a place to come together and pursue a sport in which they are still sidelined. “Some of the girls wear headscarves, and sometimes the whole Abaya,” says Yasmin. “We found a pitch in New Cross and it is very contained. It has high walls so no one can really see. They feel safe; it is private.”
Ultimately, Yasmin hopes to run Sisterhood FC full-time – creating a space for Muslim women in the football world. For now, the team remains a part-time endeavour. But, as its players grow in confidence, the individual’s captured in Mann’s images will continue to carve out a place for themselves in the mainstream. “I was inspired by seeing what football visibly does for these women,” says Mann. “People are so comfortable in these spaces; it is incredible to see what these communities are capable of.”
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.