As It Happens

Basketball helped her find her 'true self.' Now she's sharing it with other Muslim women

When Fitriya Mohamed played basketball in high school, she didn't see a lot of other Muslim girls on the court. So when she graduated from university, she decided to do something about it.

'I wanted to start up something specifically for Muslim women because I didn't see others that looked like me'

Toronto's Fitriya Mohamed has launched a non-profit basketball league for Muslim women and girls. (Luis Mora)

Read Story Transcript

When Fitriya Mohamed played basketball in high school, she didn't see a lot of other Muslim girls on the court. So when she graduated from university, she decided to do something about it.

After getting her degree in sports management last year, the Toronto woman launched the Muslim Women's Summer Basketball Team, a non-profit dedicated to supporting Muslim women and girls over 13 playing basketball in the Greater Toronto Area.

"Basketball is where I discovered my true self in terms of my leadership abilities, my confidence. There's just so much that basketball has taught me as an individual," Mohamed, a former child refugee from Ethiopia, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Through my journey, I kind of knew that I wanted to start up something specifically for Muslim women because I didn't see others that looked like me."

Her story was featured Sunday in the Toronto Star's changemaker series, in an article by Sarah Hagi

Mohamed was just 10 when she arrived in Canada. Her family's resettlement was sponsored by a Toronto church group, which included former As It Happens co-host Jeff Douglas.

"When I came from Ethiopia, the weather, everything, was, like, completely different. And me learning, trying to learn the language, was absolutely hard," she said.

"Just trying to take part in different activities that the school offered was a way for me to, I guess, adapt to the culture."

It was through sport that she really found herself — after a push from a no-nonsense gym teacher.

"She didn't like the girls sitting on the bench. So she's like always, 'Go play.' If you're in gym class, you have to play," Mohamed said.

"She was like, 'What are you guys afraid of? You guys are all girls here.' Just like, she was a joker."

It's impacting individuals that, you know, went into playing basketball at the highest level, but still felt like they didn't belong in the community because there wasn't a community that was actually supporting them in terms of their Islamic identity- Fitriah Mohamed, Muslim Women's Summer Basketball Team 

It was a far cry from her experience back in Ethiopoa, she said, where her male cousins all play soccer, but the girls mostly watch on the sidelines. 

After that moment, there were no more sidelines for Mohamed. She became immersed in sports.

And her passion for playing only intensified in high school, where she met Coach Greg Brohman, who she describes as a strong advocate for girls' sports.

"Every sports teams he coached, I literally tried out just because he I feel like he believed in me, and he didn't look at me differently," she said. "So, yeah, give a shout out to my high school coach, for sure."

While she excelled as an athlete in many sports, it was basketball that really struck a chord. 

"There's so much that came out of it — like the sisterhood that we created with the girls' team and just the other activities we got to take part in after school," she said. 

Members of the Muslim Women’s Summer Basketball League, a basketball non-profit that connects Muslim women and girls in the Greater Toronto Area. From left to right: Afifa Salad, Shama Saleh, Fitriya Mohamed and Nazneen Dasu. (Submitted by Fitriya Mohamed)

Mohamed's burgeoning basketball career initially caused some tensions at home, she said. Her mom didn't understand at first why she dedicated so much of her time to the sport. 

"She wasn't supportive at the beginning.  Like, every day, I would say, 'I have basketball practice. I have this practice.' [She'd be] Like, 'Wait, what is this going to do for you?'" Mohamed said.

"Overall, she wanted me to concentrate on my education."

Mohamed did just that, but she also found a way to incorporate her passion into her schooling. In 2019, she graduated with a bachelor's degree in sports management.

Her mom, she says, has come around. 

"She finally accepted what I'm doing and the fact that I'm not on a bad track. Rather, you know, I'm doing important things in the community," she said.

Now Mohamed wants to make sure other Muslim girls have the same opportunities she did, so she launched a non-profit with the goal of giving them a safe — and free — space to get together and play. 

She says she's received feedback from parents who didn't know basketball was an option for their daughters, from young women who'd faced barriers getting into the sport, and even from women who played at the college level, but always felt like outsiders on the court.

"The response has been absolutely great," she said.

"Hearing stuff like that is like, wow. It's impacting individuals that, you know, went into playing basketball at the highest level, but still felt like they didn't belong in the community because there wasn't a community that was actually supporting them in terms of their Islamic identity."

Unfortunately, the organization's first season was put on halt because of the pandemic. 

"But hopefully COVID kind of chills down so we can start it up and running," she said. 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sonya Varma. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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