While playing against South Korea in Morocco’s second Women’s World Cup match in July 2023, Nouhaila Benzina took the world by surprise as the first player to wear a hijab in a global tournament.
While in 2007, the Federation of International Football Association or FIFA forbade the wearing of headscarves due to health and safety reasons, the association approved it in 2014 not without thunderous campaigns.
The Moroccan defender amazed everyone not only with her defensive skill set but also with the peculiarity in her appearance. Benzina plays the role of a defender for the Association’s Sports of Forces Armed Royal, the leading champion in Morocco’s top women’s league.
However, Morocco is the first Arab or North African nation to participate in the Women’s World Cup tournament that was held in Australia and New Zealand.
Speaking to reporters, Assmaah Helal, a co-founder of the Muslim Women in Sports Network, expressed that many Muslim girls across the world will now be able to derive inspiration from Benzina.
“Not just the players, but I think decision-makers, coaches, other sports as well,” she said.
Stepping down to Nigeria, there is 18-year-old Rasheedat Bukola, who began playing football at a young age. She now feels motivated watching Benzina on the screens while playing with a hijab.
“Watching Nouhaila wearing a hijab on the pitch is a source of motivation to me. It makes me feel that I can also get to the International level,” Rasheedat told Prime Progress.
Rasheedat’s dream of becoming a star ignited a decade ago on the streets of Iyana Ilogbo in Nigeria’s Ogun State.
In many Nigerian households that adhere to Islamic traditions, engaging in sports such as football is often discouraged, particularly for girls.
However, Rasheedat’s story defied this conventional norm. As a child, she consistently broke free from societal expectations and eagerly joined her male siblings in playing the game.
“I remember how accommodating they were to allow me to play with them every day. They even guided me on how to do it better,” she recalled.
Rasheedat continued, highlighting that her parents also wholeheartedly supported her aspirations. They encouraged her to persist in her career, no matter how daunting it might appear.
Throughout her secondary school years, Rasheedat remained dedicated to the game and participated in numerous local tournaments within Ogun State. In 2019, she took the next step in her educational journey by enrolling at the University of Ilorin to pursue a degree in Accounting, all the while nurturing her passion for sports.
Upon her arrival at the university, it didn’t take long for Rasheedat to discover an inter-faculty sports competition exclusively for female athletes, which further fueled her enthusiasm for the game.
“I saw it on our Department’s notice board, and I followed the necessary process, which led me to represent my department in the competition,” said Rasheedat. It was through the competition that she later earned a spot in the university’s professional female football team.
Within the university’s walls, Rasheedat evolved into a multi-sport athlete, seamlessly blending her passion for football with teqball—a unique sport played on a specially adapted table, reminiscent of a table-tennis setup.
To refine her teqball skills, she made it a routine to engage in every match hosted within the university. During these captivating moments, she became an inspiration to other young girls like her, motivating them to pursue their dreams with unwavering determination, regardless of gender stereotypes and cultural norms.
“Many girls come to me after our training or matches to express how I’m inspiring them. I always tell them to go for what they want, whether it’s in sports or other endeavours. They should never bother about what people will say,” Rasheedat narrated.
Unlike the experiences of other women screwing stereotypes to better their lives, Rasheedat faced minimal challenges through her journey because her parents, siblings, and colleagues in school served as her support system.
Along the line, she battled time management and has overcome it.
“I invested my leisure time to learn theprinciples of time management,” she said. She is also trying to balance her academics and sports career.
“I make sure that one doesn’t affect the other no matter what. They are all priorities to me. I want to make my parents proud by acquiring good grades in school,” she expressed.
She never relents to pass down the same words to young female players confronting her for advice.
Rasheedat shared with Prime Progress that it took her lots of sacrifices to reach this stage. She swore not to forget her most rewarding moment in which she represented Nigeria and won a gold medal for the Teqball Championship at the African Beach Games that was held in Hammamet, Tunisia, in June 2023.
“It’s Almighty’s blessings that kept me through,” confessed Rasheedat.
As Rasheedat is rounding off her undergraduate degree program at the university, she also hopes to be a world-star football player.
“After my convocation in October, I will work towards building a future that will lead me to make an appearance on international stages while still wearing my hijab, just like Nouhaila,” she concluded.