Muslim women in a football league of their own

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The Independent Online

Her room was plastered with posters of the Liverpool players John Barnes and Jamie Redknapp and she was a regular on the terraces at Anfield. By the time the film Bend it Like Beckham was released in 2002, featuring Parminder Nagra as a footie fanatic, Ms Akhtar, 22, from north London, was streets ahead of her fictional counterpart.

Later this month, she will add to her international experience by captaining Britain's five-a-side football team in the fourth International Islamic Women's Games in Iran.

More than a dozen Muslim women from Britain are travelling to Tehran to compete in the futsal (five-a-side) competition. The week-long tournament features 15 games and 25 countries.

The players, who are sponsored by the newspaper, Muslim News, include mothers and married women as well as students and academics, and most are devout Muslims who have grown up wearing headscarves on the pitch. This will be Ms Akhtar's second visit to the Muslim women's Olympics - she was part of the British team who went in 2001 when the UK became the first non-Muslim country to take part. "It is empowering to play football as a Muslim woman. It goes against what society expects of you, from Muslims as well as non-Muslims, because there's such mixed messages around Islam," she said.

Her love of football began as a four-year-old who learnt to play the game from her two older brothers.

"The best night of the week used to be Saturday when I watched the Match of the Day highlights. By the time Bend it Like Beckham came out, I was already doing it, but without the family conflict. Mine have always been supportive and my mum was really sporty in Pakistan.

"I have always been a Liverpool fan and the feeling on the terraces is fantastic. I went to the Champions League finals in Istanbul in March and everyone was hugging everyone else. I've never had any trouble - often I've been the only one with a headscarf on," she said.

Ms Akhtar, who recently graduated from London University and is due to begin work as an associate at Pricewaterhouse- Coopers, is not the only British Asian woman to have been brought up loving football. Ayesha Abdeen, 21, who has just completed a degree in physiotherapy and is vice-captain of the team, attended a football academy in Richmond, south-west London, as a youngster to develop her skills. "I played for a football academy and was the only Asian and Muslim there. I've always played for local teams. I considered myself more British than English because it feels more multicultural. That's why playing for Britain in a Muslim women's team perfectly encompasses who I am," she said.

The team has faced some recruitment problems as there is a degree of resistance towards Muslim women playing sport from within the community.

Ms Akhtar said she had seen some talented players put under family pressure to give up playing. But she added: "The Koran encourages women to play sport. It's about transforming people's misconceptions."