London: Khadijah Mellah, a Peckham teenager who on Thursday will become the first Briton to race in a hijab, is blazing a trail on horseback to knock down some stereotypes.
“There is this whole perception that Muslim women are oppressed, they can’t follow their dreams or aspirations and they are constantly being told what to do,” the 18-year-old tells The Daily Telegraph. “That’s just not right at all.”
No need to tip-toe around the subject of negative perceptions for Mellah. She makes her debut in the Magnolia Cup at Goodwood — a charity race in support of Well-being of Women — from the unlikeliest of beginnings. From the age of five she developed an obsession with horses, but her dream of getting riding lessons had seemed an impossibility for years until a chance visit by her mother, Selma, to Brixton Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre. In the window was a leaflet for Ebony Horse Club in Brixton.
“She came back home and said, ‘Hey, there’s a horse riding centre in Brixton’. I was like, ‘I’ve lived and grown up in Brixton and Peckham, no way’. But I was so wrong. It was incredible. I signed up and became a member about seven years ago. I had tried another place and they would just let you get on with no instruction. Here you were learning to do things properly. The people were friendly and it was such great fun.”
Mellah, who is set to get her amateur racing licence while she studies mechanical engineering at Leeds or Loughborough in September, describes how she has drawn strength to speak her mind and compete after watching TED Talks by strong Muslim women.
She has also been emboldened by the increased profile of the Nike-sponsored athlete, Manal Rostom. “It’s amazing seeing women that have worked hard and shown people that the stereotypes are wrong,” she says.
At Goodwood, Mellah will show off a Nike-branded hijab just like Rostom’s. “I will wear it for the race. It’s difficult wearing a hijab, particularly during the heatwave with my helmet on. It flaps about.
“It’s so powerful to see Muslim women doing incredible things. Manal has run marathons and climbed summits. She’s massively inspirational.”
Racing rarely attracts a strong Muslim following because of its connection with gambling, but Mellah will be cheered on by her whole family at Goodwood. “I’m glad people are taking an interest,” she says. “I’m glad we can change the image as there aren’t many Muslim people you hear about doing something cool.”
Mellah also welcomes the chance to change perceptions about teenagers from Peckham and other inner-city areas. She went to primary school with Malcolm Mide-Madariola, who was stabbed to death in Clapham Junction last November. “He was not involved in gang or knife culture ... It was such a shock.”
In central Peckham, Mellah used to enjoy driving past a series of portraits of black actors from the community, such as Idris Elba, David Oyelowo and Marsha Thomason, who have gone on to achieve fame. Now she hopes her own against-the-odds route into a potential racing career might help convince the local youngsters that anything is possible.
“It’s quite odd because when I do see people I’m like, ‘I’m not around, I’m training up at Newmarket just for, like, a jockey race thing’, and they are always, like, ‘What? How?’ The reactions of people are quite funny.”
She added: “There have been so many people sending such lovely supportive messages and there have been a couple of people who have even been in touch to see how they can get on a course.”
Mellah will take on experienced riders, including former Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton, in the race, but the staff at Ebony in Brixton are quietly confident that their protege can pull off a shock.
David Fleming, engagement manager of the Ebony Horse Club, which offers free access to 90 per cent of its local youngsters, landed Mellah’s chance to race at Goodwood with the help of ITV racing host Oli Bell. “From that we came up with the Magnolia Cup and the first person we thought of was Khadijah,” said Fleming. “She just took it on, saying, ‘Yes, I’ll do it’. I’ve seen racing all my life and I’ve seen her race, and I think she has a really good chance.”
Khadijah Mellah will ride Haverland, trained by Charlie Fellowes, and is also taking part in a documentary, ‘Riding a Dream’, directed by Mattia Reiniger and Tom Bolwell. It is being produced by ITV Racing’s Oli Bell and his brother Philip Bell, and funded by Great British Racing, Goodwood Racecourse and the Racing Foundation.