Zainab Alema on her ambition to be England's first black, Muslim female rugby player
"I didn't feel like I belonged just because I didn't see anyone that looked like me."
On last week's episode of House of Rugby on JOE, Zainab Alema revealed her ambition to become England's first black, Muslim female rugby player.
Alema is a neonatal nurse in the NHS and a mother of three. She also plays for Barnes RFC in south-west London.
She joined House of Rugby panel Lee McKenzie, Jonathan Davies and Séan O'Brien to discuss her route into the game, future aspirations and how she is managing playing and training throughout the month of Ramadan.
"I was 14 when I first got my hands on a rugby ball and I fell in love."
Alema briefly played for a club side in Ealing before moving to university; where she first took rugby seriously.
She admitted she was the only non-white Muslim player that didn't drink alcohol.
"That was a culture shock, if I'm honest," Alema said.
"I was the only black person in my team, the only Muslim person in my team and I was the only one that didn't drink on my team. There was a lot going on and I really felt out of place."
Looking through the laws of rugby persuaded her to stay in the sport.
"It said there in black and white under the clothing section that you can wear a headscarf to play.
"And for me, it was such a relief because up until that time, I didn't feel like I belonged just because I didn't see anyone that looked like me."
Alema's progress throughout the month of Ramadan has been hampered slightly by injury.
"I've got a hamstring injury at the moment so I can't run anyway," she admitted.
"So it's kind of timely."
Alema makes specific adjustments to her training surrounding Ramadan.
"The number one question people ask is, 'Not even water?' Like, everyone asks that.
"During the month of Ramadan we don't eat or drink and people are really surprised that we don't even have water.
"You have to be careful and know your body. I train close to sunset, so I can break my fast and then sometimes I train after I break my fast. I don't do anything silly like going for a run during the day because that's not really advisable."
Alema is clear and forthright in her ambitions.
"I want to be the first black Muslim woman to play for England. I actually only decided that during lockdown."
She hopes her story will inspire a new generation of black and minority ethnic players to lace up their boots, pop in their gumshield and take to the field, particularly within the women's game.
As the Sunday Times Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year, Alema is encouraging others from marginalised backgrounds to join their local rugby club.
"I truly believe that if I get in that England shirt, I'm going to open up rugby to a new audience, people that I'm trying to reach out to to play rugby will then be thinking, 'Oh, look at Z, she's a black woman, she's wearing a hijab, she's playing rugby. Maybe I can give it a go.'"
Watch the latest episode of House of Rugby here