How the Trojan Horse affair affected British Pakistanis

Play the long game Following the Yorkshire Cricket racism scandal in 2021, British Pakistani sportspeople and fans are reconsidering the...


Following the Yorkshire Cricket racism scandal in 2021, British Pakistani sportspeople and fans are reconsidering their roles on the pitch and in the stands.

It was racism that brought cricketer Azeem Rafiq to tears.

One of his own teammates called it a pejorative term for Pakistani, a racial slur. But it was not the first time he had called her while playing cricket for his county. It had happened countless times before.

Although he saw the tears of Mr. Rafiq, the player who used the insult said he had no idea he was offending and “would have stopped if Rafiq had asked.”

In September 2020, Mr Rafiq brought charges of racist bullying at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, where he had played for eight years. It transcended sport and led to a government hearing. Yorkshire Cricket have been suspended from hosting international matches over their handling of the case. In November 2021, the story dominated UK headlines.

It was a watershed moment that highlighted the unsettling mix of how deeply Pakistani athletes and British fans are woven into the landscape of professional sport, but how tenuous their ability to belong in Britain is. I have competed and worked in athletics for over a decade and although I have met hundreds of athletes I only knew of three who were British Pakistanis. Two of them were my brothers. Now working as a sports journalist, I was recently told by a press secretary for a national sports governing body that I could never be impartial on a race story because I am not white.

If we speak openly about racism, even if we are believed, there is no promise that it will be taken seriously, and it could cause us to lose acceptance. My own first experience of racist abuse, as a mixed race British Pakistani girl growing up in the same area as Mr Rafiq, also involved an ethnic slur. I was 8 years old and was physically abused at school while my classmate was shouting obscenities with insult. I was sent to the director, who demanded to know what I had done to “cause the attack, and I was made to believe that it was my fault.

Racism is about power, and in sport power comes from the institutions responsible for selecting athletes – who need to earn a living – for teams. In January 2022, Mr Rafiq said he was in no doubt that speaking out had cost him his career.

But some British Pakistani cricketers believe Mr Rafiq’s case can move things forward, giving them the confidence to speak out.

“The biggest thing that came out of it was that there were players who felt like they had a voice,” said Moeen Ali, an England cricketing legend.

World Cup winner and Britain’s best-known Pakistani cricketer, Mr Ali said he believed Britain’s cricket governing bodies had failed to develop young South Asian players.

“So many players have been missed,” he said. “There is so much talent. If you look at the country, most of the people who play cricket are Asians. So why are we missing these players?

Despite our performances on the field, society does not put us on an equal footing. Birmingham City University Research showed that white British private school cricketers are 34 times more likely than young Asians to reach elite level – a disparity that could not be explained in terms of performance.

Although football and cricket are not the only sports played by British Pakistanis, their participation rates in elite sports make them crucial case studies. Asian Brits make up 7% of the population, but only 0.25% of our professional football players are of Anglo-Asian descent, with the vast majority having Indian heritage.

For British Pakistani Footballer Easah Suliman, the first Asian-born player to captain an England football team, it was representation within cricket that had an impact. A practicing Muslim who grew up in the same region as Moeen Ali and currently plays for Nacional in Portuguese football’s second tier, he says representation can “give players an extra boost”.

Mr Suliman, 24, was among the winners 2017 European U19 Championship squad and scored the first goal of the final. “It was special to imagine my grandmother sitting on the couch watching me win in my England shirt,” he said. “I don’t think when she was younger, living in Pakistan, she would have thought that one day she would see her grandson playing for England.”

But when he got to this level, he didn’t see many other people from his background. Only one, in fact, in 13 years at Aston Villa Football Club.

Another lonely brown face at a Premier League club is Zidane Iqbal, who is of Pakistani and Iraqi descent. Mr Iqbal, 18, made history in 2021 when he became the first British South Asian to play for Manchester United. Her father, Aamar Iqbal, said it was “the culmination of more than 14 years of dedication”.

“His mother and brother had tears of joy for him that night,” Mr Iqbal said. “It meant so much to everyone who knows Zidane as well as the wider community, and Zidane is truly proud of his legacy.”

For those who succeed, it is often their talent that acts as armor against racism. Riz Rehman is the head of the Professional Footballers Association Asian Inclusion Mentorship Program, which aims to increase the number of South Asians in football. His brother, Zesh Rehman, was the first British Pakistani player to start a Premier League game in 2004.

Growing up, the Rehman brothers were kicked out of school and called ethnic slurs daily. It wasn’t until their peers realized they could play football that their attitudes changed. “We were both named school team captains,” Mr. Rehman said. “All the children got to know us and it was only through sport that we were accepted. Football saved us.

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