Meet Khadijah Mellah: The UK's first ever hijab-wearing jockey

Meet Khadijah Mellah: The UK's first ever hijab-wearing jockey
Khadijah, from Peckham, London who only sat on a racehorse for the first time in April, is the first British Muslim female jockey to wear a hijab whilst racing.
6 min read
20 November, 2019
Khadijah is the first jockey to ever race in Britain wearing a hijab [Getty]
When 18-year-old Khadijah Mellah from Peckham, London, became the first ever hijab-wearing jockey to take part in a major race (the Magnolia Cup) and win, the sporting world was in awe.

Couple this with the fact that she had only started training four months prior to the competition and you have the makings of a movie. Or a documentary.

On November 2 ITV aired the documentary Riding a Dream, which follows Mellah's journey from amateur horse-rider to winning jockey, catapulting her into the public eye and media headlines.

Despite a season of intense training, non-stop press and a whirlwind summer Mellah remains humble. In fact, she put the red carpet and racecourse on the back burner this September to concentrate on her studies at Brighton University.

An unlikely path 

From a young age Mellah's parents took her for riding lessons in Kent, but the cost and distance meant that they were unable to keep up with regular classes.

And, although the horse-riding industry isn't seen as a typical career or hobby for Muslim women, Mellah's passion didn't deter her. In fact, it only spurred her on, especially when she discovered a local riding club.

"I've always loved horses and had ridden at a riding school in Kent a few times when I was younger" she tells The New Arab.

"Then my mum found a leaflet for Ebony Horse Club in Brixton and I began riding there when I was 12, from there my passion has grown.

"Ebony is in the middle of Brixton and gives young people in the city an opportunity to learn to ride and care for horses, as well as being a fantastic community centre."

Khadijah Mellah celebrates after winning the 'Magnolia Cup' charity ladies race on 'Ladies Day' of the Qatar Goodwood Festival 2019 at Goodwood Racecourse on August 1, 2019 in Chichester, England [Getty]

The response towards ethnic minority women, in particular those who wear the hijab, entering the sporting space is sometimes met with mixed reactions or controversy but Mellah, who is of Kenyan and Algerian heritage, insists that her experience has been largely positive.

"My family and friends were incredibly supportive, particularly my younger brother Abdus, who is a racing enthusiast," she explains.

"Initially I didn't tell many people that I was training for a race but when people in my community found out, particularly after winning the Magnolia Cup, everyone was delighted for me," she adds. 

"On the day of the race itself I was a nervous wreck," she says. "There were so many people. It was one massive collection of crazy memories but I enjoyed it so much."

After winning the Goodwood Ladies Race for the Magnolia Cup this year Mellah went down in history as the first jockey to ever race in Britain wearing a hijab. She went from never having even sat on a race horse to winning the cup, in what was her first ever race, against well-known figures such as Victoria Pendleton and Vogue Williams.

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Mellah soon became a household name among racing enthusiasts. Oli Bell, a presenter from ITV Racing sung her praises on social media by Tweeting: "I could not be prouder of this inspirational young woman. 2 months ago she hadn't even sat on a racehorse. Khadijah Mellah is a superstar and today she showed the world that anything is possible."

Mellah has also been pictured with the likes of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the Duchess of Cornwall and even the Queen of England.

"The Duchess or Cornwall came to my documentary premiere which was amazing," recalls Mellah. "I also met the Queen at QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot in October. She asked me about the race and my story – both are days that I will always remember.

"I also met one of my sporting idols Manal Rostom who is an Egyptian runner and founder of the online platform Surviving Hijab. I had messaged her weeks before my race and she shared my story to the Surviving Hijab community hoping to inspire other young women."

Speaking of her experiences so far Mellah adds: "It's been massively overwhelming at points but at the same time I've loved getting to talk to people. The whole experience has been incredible."

Despite becoming a star jockey, Mellah is anything but an overnight success. She explains how training took­ a totally different experience and she had to learn a new set of riding skills for this in a short space of time.

"I also had fitness training which was pretty tough and tiring particularly as this was during Ramadan," she tells The New Arab.

However, despite Mellah's exponential success and popularity she still believes that more needs to be down to encourage Muslim and hijab-wearing women to enter the sporting world.

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"I'm definitely very proud that I was the first but at the same time I'm slightly disappointed that there haven't been other Muslim women in general that have been part of the racing industry," she says.

"I have mixed feelings because some people took the news story as, 'oh, the only reason she made the news is [because] she was wearing a hijab' and it really bugged me.

"But I'm really glad that there's a positive story out there about Muslim women. Generally speaking, the image of Islam in the media is negative and I'm so happy that I've made it a positive story."

Mellah also hopes that her story will inspire the next generation of Muslim women to get involved in sport.

"I hope that this will be an incentive for Muslim women, women in general, women of colour, to follow through because you never know what opportunities you will come across," she says.

"I would advise other Muslim girls to be ambitious , there is a stereotype surrounding what we can achieve but I hope that my story will inspire other girls to follow their dreams and be determined to succeed breaking down barriers as well," adds Mellah.

Still riding on the high of her big win, Mellah has decided to take some time out of the jockey spotlight to concentrate on her studies.

"I am in the first term at the University of Brighton studying mechanical engineering. I will keep up riding during the holidays and hope to ride out in Newmarket."

And as for the future? Anything is possible says Mellah: "I have joined the Polo Society and hope to set up Racing Society as I would love to get more people into the sport."

Sami Rahman is a freelance lifestyle writer based in London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman