As someone who’s never really been a football fan, let alone kept track of scores, promotions, or news from within the sport, it took me by surprise when all of a sudden I couldn’t stop watching the 2023 Women’s World Cup. It’s been refreshing and liberating to see women’s football grow so much over the past few years, and—despite having had zero previous interest—this summer, I found myself all of a sudden deeply invested, picking favourite teams, and streaming every match I could.
So, with my newly found football fever, I decided to reach out to someone who’s not only an expert on the topic of women’s football but has also dedicated nearly a decade pursuing and fighting for greater representation within the sport.
Miriam Walker-Khan is a journalist, documentary maker, content creator, and the first-ever Sky Sports Diversity and Inclusion reporter. She’s a tour de force and has undoubtedly improved representation for South Asian women not just in football, but across all sports.
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In 2021, Walker-Khan was nominated for the Ones to Watch (on-air) Sports Journalism Association award. Plus, she was the only sports journalist to be nominated for the Outstanding Young Journalist award at the Asian Media Awards in 2018 and 2019.
I recently got to sit down with Walker-Khan for a chat—her in Australia for the World Cup, me in South London hiding from the rain. We spoke about her early experiences with football, her thoughts on the need for greater widespread inclusion in sports, and of course, her opinions on all things 2023 Women’s World Cup.
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Walker-Khan’s love for football wasn’t a completely linear journey. Her dad worked for Sheffield United and so the young journalist was always around the game. She told me: “[My dad] was a scout and so every weekend, we’d go to Bramall Lane and I hated it because it was the first place I heard racist abuse directed at him.”
Understandably, those early experiences tainted the game for Walker-Khan, and by the age of six she’d decided she didn’t like football and wasn’t going to go to any more games with her dad. Instead, she took up sprinting. She was “rapid,” and so athletics came naturally to her. She even ended up training long jump with none other than Beth England, a now professional football player for England.
But Walker-Khan’s love for football reignited as she grew up and began watching and following football that existed outside of the manosphere. The journalist explained: “I’ve always just loved football, especially the national team and following England. But I think when I started following women’s football in particular, I fell back in love with going to games, it’s a totally different experience. If you’re a woman, go to women’s games. I just love it now, it’s a huge part of my life.”
One of Walker-Khan’s key motivations for building a career in football journalism definitely came from her drive to create spaces for greater representation within every sport—particularly in regard to South Asian women. One of the ways she’s done this is through her initiative Brown Girl Sport, an online community rooted in telling the stories of South Asian women in sport.
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She noted: “The reason I set up Brown Girl Sport was because we just don’t hear about South Asian women in sport, whether it’s in South Asia or the diaspora. I think it’s mad that there are billions of people that part of the world, and we just never get to hear their stories because they’re deemed as niche or not worthy of being told in the mainstream media.”
“So I think It’s always kind of driven me because when I was growing up I didn’t have any role models that looked like me. I didn’t really think about the lack of representation that I had until I got older and until the past few years, because you don’t realise the impact it can have on you if you don’t see it, right?” she continued.
While Brown Girl Sport is still in its infancy and mainly consists of Walker-Khan in her pyjamas at home, it’s a growing collective that means a lot to many people, and it’s been a healing experience for the journalist as well.
Recalling a story from her childhood, she said: “I remember really clearly once a coach saying to me, I think I was probably 17, ‘you’re really fast for a skinny Asian girl.’ And I became obsessed with trying to put on weight and not be skinny but obviously, you can’t change the fact that you’re a bit brown. Just being told I was good at sport despite being Asian was something that probably impacted me a lot more than I thought.”
Another project that’s not only meant a deep amount to Walker-Khan, but also to a lot of South Asian women, was the reporter’s documentary exploring the cultural impacts and importance of the iconic football film Bend It Like Beckham. The film has always been a part of Walker-Khan’s life, it’s a movie everyone who knows her knows she’s obsessed with. Which is why for the recent 20th anniversary of the film, she decided to pitch the idea of doing a documentary on it to the BBC, where she was working at the time.
Presenting it fully on her own and with just a friend onboard to film it, Walker-Khan created a beautiful piece of film and was able to interview a wide variety of people. Speaking about it, she explained: “Whether it’s about sexuality, race, religion, or 9/11, we spoke about everything. When I was making it, obviously I know how hugely impactful the film is, but I didn’t even realise everything that movie covered until I was sat in the edit room and we were going through all these conversations that were just so powerful and important. Jess was literally the role model for so many brown girls and she wasn’t real, so it’s kind of heartbreaking.”
Another impactful documentary Walker-Khan presented was called Fit for Purpose, a deeply important piece of media which explored the serious challenges sportswomen encounter regarding sports kit and how their performances’ has been impacted by ill-fitting and inappropriate uniform.
Talking about what she learnt on the shoot, she revealed: “Obviously, you do your own sport, and you’re just within a bubble of that sport, but I didn’t know anything about the stuff. For example, the things that that rugby players and cricketers go through. I didn’t know that women who play cricket are wearing the wrong size shin guards or that female boxers are given boxing gloves that will be junior size and in pink.”
Her new role at Sky Sports, wherein she’s been making more of these incredible documentaries, didn’t come straight away. In fact, she actually first pitched the idea of Diversity and Inclusion reporter to the BBC, to which they said no.
“I still think there’s definitely a long way to go, the industry is a tricky one to navigate, especially from my point of view, obviously being a woman of colour. But I’ve loved the challenge of disrupting it a bit and I also love knowing that I’m doing work and making content that’s gonna piss off old racist men. The job should exist and it is important. I’m excited about what we do in the future.”
One of the things I wanted to get Walker-Khan’s opinion on is the recent discourse regarding the fact that Moroccan player Nouhaila Benzina made history by becoming the first football player to wear a hijab in a World Cup game. One of the things the sports reporter and I touched upon in our conversation about this topic is how much talent will have been lost over the years solely because of the FIFA ban.
The journalist stated: “I was actually saying this during the match with Morocco playing, obviously it’s great and there’s a woman with a hijab, but why is it that in 2023 that’s the first time we’re seeing one on a football pitch at the World Cup? It’s crazy when you think about what’s happening in France at the moment. The French football federation are banning the hijab as well. It’s really worrying because it’s obviously mainly affecting women of colour, Black and brown women. I feel as though Muslim women’s bodies are just constantly being policed by people who are old white men.”
Walker-Khan went on to ponder: “We’ve never had a South Asian team qualify for the World Cup, men or women, but there are women on the Pakistan football team for example, who wear the hijab. What would happen if they qualified or wanted to play a competition in France? They possibly wouldn’t be able to if they wore a hijab. So, it’s kind of no wonder certain teams aren’t able to play at the same standard or have the same opportunities as other teams.”
We need to stop insisting that Western football teams have the winning edge, without appreciating and recognising how access to financial and training resources plays a massive role in this.
Despite the award-winning journalist still having so many upcoming projects to look forward to, I wanted to find out if there had been a specific moment throughout her career that stood out as a pivotal point. For her, it was being able to work with the Pakistan women’s football team: “It has been a highlight of mine just because I remember, a few months ago, telling my grandma that I was doing it. She was completely shocked at the fact that there was a football team for women in Pakistan, like a national team. She couldn’t believe it and that was really special.”
“Both my grandparents were born in Pakistan, my dad was born there and I think it’s something they probably could never have imagined in their lifetime. To tell the stories of all these incredible women that are part of that team now has just been a real honour,” she concluded.
While I may’ve never personally had an interest or love for football as a child, it’s a real understatement to say that this year’s Women’s World Cup has gotten me excited about competitive sports for the first time, I think, ever. The sisterhood is real.