Richmond rugby trailblazer Zainab Alema hoping to inspire others in Black History Month

Zainab Alema is a rugby player, NHS nurse and mum of three and for most ordinary people, that would be more than enough responsibilities to juggle.

For the Richmond Women’s trailblazer, however, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as Alema is determined to leave a legacy and inspire thousands of other women to follow in her extraordinary footsteps.

How? By becoming the first black Muslim woman to represent England at rugby.

“Can you imagine someone like me playing for the national team?” she asks.

“That would just inspire so many people. It would be a history making moment and such a powerful message to people in general, be that people from the black community or the Muslim community, or mothers or career women.

“There are so many people I feel I represent and even just being on the journey to try to become the first black Muslim woman to play for England I feel would inspire across the board and that’s my ultimate mission.

“Some people ask why I bring race into it. It’s because I don’t want other people out there to think rugby isn’t for them, because it is, everyone is welcome whatever their race, sex or background and that’s why I make a point of referencing it in my story.”

“RUGBY IS MY STRESS-RELIEVER”: Zainab Alema talks about her rugby journey

Rugby is a community-based sport that Alema believes everybody should try – becoming a part of the growing rugby family in the process. 

She said: “Rugby has brought so much to my life, physically, socially and mentally. It’s a sport for everybody, from all walks of life, it gives you confidence, it gives you another sense of family other than your own, and it’s just a beautiful environment to be in.

“The rugby family is like no other, you come to training, you come to a game, and you’ve always got someone to say: ‘are you ok today, how was work, how was your day?’  

“It’s just that extra layer of camaraderie that you get by being a part of a rugby team and a rugby club.”

Alema, who was crowned Sunday Times Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year 2020, hopes she can encourage more players from ethnically diverse communities to join her in the sport she loves.

She added: “I’ve always said I’m proud to be a black woman, especially in the rugby scene and ‘proud to be’ is such a fitting theme for this year. Hopefully, it will come to a point where we’re not just celebrating a Black History month – it’s a lifelong celebration.

“Richmond is the most diverse club I’ve been at. They’ve supported me in many ways, especially offering me a prayer space.

“As a Muslim, I pray five times a day, so before games and whenever I’m at the club I don’t have to worry about where to pray. I’ve got a designated place and that means so much to me.

“We’re such a beautiful club, have a great history and it’s absolutely amazing.”

DIVERSE CLUB: Alema with teammate Laura Kapo at Richmond. Credit: Col Palfrey

While Alema is fiercely motivated to fulfil her rugby ambition, she remains acutely aware of the enormity of the challenge that awaits.

She added: “It’s scary, I can’t lie. I’ve openly admitted I want to play for England – which I guess adds a little bit of pressure and accountability, but life’s too short.

“Working in the NHS, I’ve realised anything can happen in a split second and obviously going through Covid during the last 18 months has been tough.

“You’ve just got to go for your dreams –  if you make it, you make it, and if you don’t, at least you tried.” 

Alema is thrilled that more girls may soon be introduced to the sport after the government this week backed the RFU’s bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2025.

She knows the impact hosting the tournament could have on growing the game in this country if the bid is successful.

Alema said: “Off the back of the 2014 Rugby World Cup in France, when England were crowned World Champions, there was such a drive of women and girls getting to play rugby. Imagine if we have that on our home soil. It would just do wonders.

“I talk about accessibility, but visibility is as important, making sure young people can see their heroes playing on TV, it will grow the game. World Cups are momentous occasions that bring the country together.

“That’s what rugby’s about. Rugby’s about bringing people from different walks of life together and celebrating the rugby spirit. I’d literally encourage anyone and everyone to get behind England’s 2025 Rugby World Cup bid.”

To find out more about how you can get involved in rugby, as a player, a volunteer, a coach or match official, visit Everyone is welcome.

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