How a Somali-born girl became a referee of men’s football in England – the remarkable story of Jawahir Roble
Many people might believe their battle for respect in life is hard enough already without also trying to become a referee.
It is a thought not lost on Jawahir Roble. “Who would ever think a black, Somali-born immigrant girl with eight siblings could ref a men’s game in England with a hijab on?” she asks with a gentle shake of the head while reflecting on a remarkable personal journey.
Known as Jawahir Jewels, or JJ to her friends, the 23-year-old is sitting with Standard Sport at Wembley ahead of England’s World Cup qualifier against Slovenia as a guest of the Football Association, just a few weeks after winning the Match Official gong at the organisation’s 2017 Respect Awards. Eleven winners were chosen from more than 1,000 nominations, with JJ recognised for her volunteering work at education charity Football Beyond Borders (FFB) and Middlesex FA, coaching FFB’s first ever women’s team and reaching her Level Six referee qualification.
“I want to keep going with it and one day I could be refereeing here,” she says, casting an envious eye across the luscious Wembley turf. “Imagine! That would be a dream.
“To get recognised at this level it empowers all of us at grassroots level.
“There are not many people I can look up to. Of course, I can look up to Mark Clattenburg but that’s a high level. There’s nobody at grassroots like me. Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation needs to rise but with the support of the FA that is happening.”
Scepticism of her chosen path began at primary school age and extremely close to home in north-west London. “My parents were not so keen on my involvement in football at first because they thought I was embarrassing them,” said JJ. “In my culture, you wouldn’t see many girls interested in football. But I always knew. It really started when my brother was five years old, I’d nominate myself to take him across London.
“Every Saturday and Sunday I would take him on the bus, train whatever it took. My parents accepted it as they wouldn’t then have to get up at the weekends. We’d be out for hours and come home muddy, hungry and everyone would ask if I was tired but I would just say ‘this is beautiful’. People wanted me to do something ‘girly’ but I knew this was the real deal for me.
“I was so into playing. Teachers were like ‘JJ, you aren’t getting the work done’. Early in the morning, lunchtimes, after school, Saturday and Sundays in the park without any kit just playing in our skirts. I’d do kick-ups and the boys would ask, ‘How are you running in your skirt?’ Don’t you get hot in your hijab?’ I’m like, ‘Nah, its calm.’”
It becomes clear from just 20 minutes in her company that this boundless enthusiasm is at the root of her deep determination and desire, rather than any sense of inequality or injustice. Refereeing was a by-product of redirecting that energy once it became clear a playing career was unlikely.
JJ started officiating in 2012 after reluctantly agreeing to take charge of a Capital Girls League game at short notice. While also coaching and volunteering with a range of young age groups, she took a refereeing course through Middlesex FA and gradually progressed through the ranks.
“Most people either become players or if that doesn’t happen, they figure that’s the end,” she said. “Yet there are so many roles you can have in football and refereeing is one of them. I’m still coaching, volunteering and managing, too.”
But has she found it difficult to be accepted as a referee, particularly in the often unforgiving environs of amateur London football? “When I’m doing a men’s game, they probably watch the news and there are some sick-heads but almost all of them are actually supportive,” she replies. “As soon as I blow the whistle, all of the rubbish that happens in the world literally doesn’t count during that 90 minutes. Sport should be an escape. My parents give me their full support now.”
Standing just over five feet tall, the physical mismatch with some players would be daunting for many but, again, typically as it turns out, JJ takes it in her stride. “I get in the middle of it. I’m like, ‘Excuse me guys, we’re not here to fight – this is a nice game, don’t ruin it.’”
JJ currently earns around £35 per game – £20-£25 if officiating as a referee’s assistant – and could take charge of as many as five games a week. Ultimately, she wants to referee in the Women’s Super League.
“I can’t wait until I get to the top,” she said. “It is a long journey but I am going to give it my best and hopefully make my dream a reality.
“I am getting more recognition now and that’s big because I see myself as a role model. I want to help more girls get into the game. They don’t have to be footballers but there is so much else to achieve. Impossible is nothing.”
She is proving just that.