Football, Community and Social Change

10 November 2021

Earlier this year, the very first Algbra x CWSA Cup was hosted, bringing women from across London to compete in a full day tournament. We sat down with the CWSA co-founder Sara Najim to talk about how this all came about, the power of inclusion, and why football is the world’s greatest sport.

What do you get when you gather a group of women to kick around a football every week? Radical inclusion, powerful community, and inspiring social change. And that’s what the Collaborative Women’s Sports Association (CWSA) is all about.

Many women grow up watching their brothers and fathers gather with their friends every week to play sports. As a boy or man, that type of access is almost a given. Meanwhile, girls and women are far less likely to find a casual, yet competitive and supportive environment to do that outside of school.

Sara Najim and Riham Rabee, sisters-in-law and best friends, certainly felt that way. Back in January 2020, they got fed up with that lack of opportunity and decided to do something about it. That’s how the CWSA began – with a few women playing football twice a week. Now, it boasts over 90 members and has expanded to include basketball, boxing, and other sports – although Sara maintains that football is definitely their biggest passion.

“I think football is the best sport in the world because literally, all you need is a ball to get started. It has built-in inclusion. That’s probably why it’s so popular.”

Indeed, the first thing you notice about these weekly meetups is their inclusivity. When asked who is welcome to join, Sara emphasizes, “It’s literally any woman who wants to join – all faiths, backgrounds, sexualities. Anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong, this is their space. There are no outsiders here – it’s just about beating the other team.”

This inclusion goes far beyond surface-level diversity for the CWSA. Sports are famously maledominated, and women’s sports are chronically underfunded. Additionally, if you come from a historically marginalized group, there are a host of reasons you may not have easy access to sports – and this is something CWSA is serious about addressing.

Sara explains that it’s about removing barriers and facilitating access in the long term. “Some of these girls have never had this kind of access to sports before. They’ve always faced some sort of resistance – whether it’s society or family or financial barriers, or because they wear the hijab, so they don’t feel welcomed in all spaces. And now they’re absolutely addicted and they never miss a session!”

Listening to Sara speak about being on the field with her co-members, or watching one of their games, it’s immediately clear that what CWSA is doing runs much deeper than just weekly sports.

While the physical benefits are obvious, Sara sheds light on multiple positive side effects that no one anticipated.

For many who are struggling with their mental health, these bi-weekly football sessions have provided a rare and much-needed respite. “Some of them have told me: for that hour and fifteen minutes, all I’m thinking about is getting that ball in the net. Whatever is happening in my life, is gone from my mind for that time.”

Others have noticed how much their experiences on the field trickle into the rest of their lives. “Girls are coming up to us saying how their overall confidence has improved, or they’re speaking up more in the workplace, or standing up for themselves more. That confidence and invigoration you feel on the field – you carry it home, to work and to your relationships. It’s actually incredible.”

It’s not just kicking the ball around that helps, however. Sara makes it clear that the women are truly the ones making the community what it is. “So many have said they’ve met their best friends here. It’s such a vibrant and boisterous group of girls — they make you feel good about yourself. Even when a team scores, the defending team is always applauding and just commenting on what a great shot it was. Although we want to keep it very competitive, it’s still such a beautiful and empowering environment with very little ego.”

This sense of community and electric energy was on full display this past July with the first CWSA x Algbra Cup at the Stonebridge Sports Pavilion. Eight teams from all parts of London competed in a full-day tournament, which was accompanied by catering from Chai Walla and face painting for the little ones. This wasn’t just a tournament – it was a festive community event. “Best day ever, really”, Sara gushed, “We stayed up until 2 am just talking about it afterwards.”

When asked what made this event so significant, Sara explained that this is what inclusion and equity looked like in action. Indeed, this was the first time London saw such a large and diverse group of women compete in such an accessible football tournament. Moreover, it was the types of women that have typically been pushed aside in a male-dominated sport.

“By partnering with Algbra, we were able to secure a really great venue near Wembley Stadium, and Algbra made sure there were no costs for teams to join. That removal of barriers was a priority for both CWSA and Algbra, which is what brought us together really.”

“It really gave us so much hope. Looking around, it was quite emotional, like a glimpse into the future,” Sara said with a tender smile.

This speaks to something much deeper than visual diversity. As Sara points out, this removal of barriers is just one step towards gender, racial, and economic equity.

“You still hear people say stuff like, ‘Oh any girl can go and book a venue to play football.’ But that doesn’t bear in mind the systemic inequalities and barriers that might prevent her from doing that. You need to actively create spaces and opportunities for disadvantaged people to be supported. It’s only after a long process of doing that we can achieve true equality.”

The CWSA works hard to ensure that this understanding of equity and social change is integrated into everything they do behind the scenes. When asked for an example of how they do that, Sara touches upon the importance of self-awareness and intersectional thinking.

“Even within disadvantaged groups, there can be privileges we have to be mindful of, and we have to be careful to not just reenact oppression amongst ourselves. For example, Riham and I are both Arab women and do face discrimination from that. But we’re also both from academic backgrounds and thus have access and language that can aid us in certain projects or getting pitches.”

“Furthermore, regardless of our experiences, we’ll never know what it’s like to be a black woman or a transgender woman. If we are representing others, we have to actively make sure we’re listening to them, that we’re not speaking over anyone, and that every woman is pushed forward in the process.”

It’s that kind of sincere self-awareness and devoted community building that’s made the CWSA such a model for social impact. Rooted in their values and grounded by their community, it’s clear that the women of the CWSA are intent on continuing to trailblaze their way through London. Next on the docket: they’re putting forward six girls to become FA-approved coaches with Level 1 accreditation. That means by the summer of 2022, they can start up games for girls under age 12, led by their newly trained coaches.

“We’re really building something long term that we never had at that age. Weekly football, in a good and very accessible location, coached by young women who will gas you up! If you don’t believe yourself, by the end of the session, you absolutely will.”

It’s this kind of exuberance that really makes someone want to join the CWSA. Through the magic of football and the power of young women, they’ve been able to build something with long-lasting effects and a tangible impact on the community.

When asked what Sara dreams of for the future, she poignantly says: “For us, this is groundbreaking. I look forward to the day when it’s not exciting whatsoever, and that this kind of inclusion and diversity is just the norm.”

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