Featured image credit: Paul Grover via Telegraph
Is there anything more British than Sunday League football? Every weekend, thousands of men across the country, from all backgrounds, races and creeds, trudge bleary-eyed onto sodden pitches to do battle with equally determined opposition. Their shots may be wayward and their tackles studs-up (and two-footed), but they are still heroes with the ball at their feet. As are the many women who also take part in this ritual.
However, you very rarely see women refereeing these rituals, controlling the game and dishing out justice when, say, a 17 stone centre-back obliterates the man and not the ball. On top of this, you very very rarely see a diminutive Muslim girl in a Hijab bossing these athletes about.
This is why we’re huge fans of Jawahir Jewels (also known as JJ), recently dubbed ‘the most remarkable referee in England’. JJ is a 23-year-old Muslim woman of Somali heritage. Wielding power in a role rarely occupied by Muslim Somali women in Hijabs – let alone women full stop – JJ says she never tires of the looks on players’ faces when they realise she’s the ref.
‘I love it,’ she recently told the Telegraph. ‘Sometimes I have to tell them about five times: “Yeah, man, I am your referee.” And they usually go: “No way, when’s the proper ref coming?”’
When the match starts, however, the players show her respect – in a uniquely football-ish way. In her interview with the Telegraph, she’s reminded of a time a player got all up in her face, only for another to pull him away and say ‘Look at her…Show a bit of respect’. The first guy’s response to that? ‘It’s you who’s not showing her respect, I’m showing her proper respect: I’m treating her like I’d treat any other referee.’
It’s an odd form of equality, but the kind anyone familiar with Sunday League back-chat would hope for.
Raised in north-west London, JJ took up refereeing after playing football at school. While she was earning her coaching badges, she sort of fell into it – reffing junior matches and the like. She soon took charge of women’s fixtures at City University, where she’s studying computer science. From there, the hallowed turf of Sunday League beckoned where, for £35 a game, she now corrals 22 amateur footballers, often by herself.
While it can be a daunting task, JJ says she’s never experienced serious abuse, beyond the usual four-letter stuff all referees face. But she doesn’t mind this, as it means she’s being treated like any other official. (Whether you think all referees should have to expect to face foul language is an issue for another day).
JJ is currently studying for the FA’s Level Six referee qualification. Recently, she had the honour of reffing a match for the charity Football Beyond Borders, which featured former Premier League players Leon Cort and Jamie Lawrence. Her ultimate goal? To referee in the Women’s Premier League.
‘It’s good to stretch yourself, to test yourself. Decision-making, being strong: you learn so many values from being a ref.’ JJ says. ‘And what I love is, get it right, they trust you.’
Who knows? Maybe she’ll take charge of a game in the men’s Premier League one day.