Ruqaya Al Ghasra was one of the first women to represent Bahrain at the Olympic Games, taking part in the women’s 100 metres sprint at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Amna Al Haddad, a female weightlifting athlete from the United Arab Emirates, competed in a number of international competitions. Ibtihaj Muhammad was a member [...]


Sri Lanka’s first hijabi athlete overwhelmed by love of fans

Squash queen Fathoum Zaleeha Issadeen aims to become Asia’s number one

Holding the Lion flag with pride after claiming the bronze medal at the 13th SAG in Nepal

Ruqaya Al Ghasra was one of the first women to represent Bahrain at the Olympic Games, taking part in the women’s 100 metres sprint at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Amna Al Haddad, a female weightlifting athlete from the United Arab Emirates, competed in a number of international competitions. Ibtihaj Muhammad was a member of the United States fencing team at the 2016 Rio Olympic. What is common about these three athletes is they broke cultural barriers, shattered glass ceilings and have become role models for Muslim women whose mere presence in a sporting arena sometimes raises many eyebrows.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim women have never been ostracized by society for participating in sports but at a time when wearing niqab or hijab came under intense scrutiny especially post-Easter Sunday, a young sports star has succeeded in bridging the cultural divide by displaying her unbridled loyalty to the Lion flag with a simple gesture after her bronze medal success at the 13th South Asian Games (SAG) in Nepal.

Yemen origin

Fathoum Zaleeha Issadeen looks every bit an Arab with her striking features, being a descendant of Yemen origin albeit going back several generations. She was warmly embraced by the public as a sporting hero as she draped the Sri Lanka flag attired in figure hugging hijabi sportswear. Photos of Fathoum pointing proudly to the words SRI LANKA emblazoned on the back of her suit went viral on social media, becoming a Facebook sensation.

“Actually I don’t know what happened. I put the bronze (medal) picture on something called Snapchat and I just put it on my story because I said ‘we won bronze’. People have taken it and started sharing the picture. I kept my phone down and when I looked, it switched off because there were so many notifications,” she said overwhelmed at the reception she received.

Nevertheless, she feels proud and comfortable wearing the hijabi suit which she first wore when she captained Sri Lanka at the Asian individual squash championship in Malaysia in 2018.

“Actually to be honest I feel very proud to wear it. I wear it with lot of pride and Sri Lanka is multi-ethnic country. So we have no problems. They are very supportive and I have no issues,” said Sri Lanka’s first Muslim athlete to wear hijab expressing her gratitude to fans.

The picture of Fathoum that went viral in the social media

“They are very nice. They give so much support and so much love. Every day there is a message from all of them. They post nice things, share pictures and nice comments, they are very supportive,” said 21-year-old Fathoum basking in the adulation of her multitude of fans.

National champion

Crowned national women’s squash champion after defeating her longtime rival Mihiliya Methsarani just before the dawn of a new decade, she dreams of becoming Asia’s number one and to be among the world’s top ten. A genuine star has certainly been born for Sri Lanka, awaiting her tryst with destiny.

“This time I believed in myself. Last time also I lost in a four-setter the whole year to her. This time I told myself ‘I am going to win’. I went into the court very strong,” said Fathoum exuding confidence after walking the talk to claim her maiden national title.

It was also a sweet triumph for Fathoum after being bitter at being denied the captaincy for the SAG.

“She (Methsarani) trains in America and studies there. She had no trials. She just came and went as number one. They (squash federation) told me, she will come for trials. This time I was confident I will beat her because I practiced a lot. Suddenly they said no trials. She came just two days before going to Nepal and went as number one and went as captain also. She was one year away from the country. In my heart I thought  if I meet her this time I am going to win because I wanted to show myself that I can do it and show them the mistake they made because I should have gone as number one. That was in my heart the whole time to be honest,” said Fathoum whose rivalry with Methsarani spurred her to achieve great heights after being second best for the past three years.

Tennis player

Fathoum first came into the national limelight as a tennis player which she began at the age of four and became runner-up in the under 8, 10, 12, and 14 age categories. Her precocious talents came to the fore in 2012 when she made her international debut in both tennis and squash.

She won the silver medal at the Asian Junior doubles in Vietnam partnering Nethmi Waduge and also represented Sri Lanka at the World Juniors in Sarawak, Malaysia.

“While playing tennis that year, I also played squash for Sri Lanka. I was Under 9 national squash champion in 2012. Since my brothers played squash, I used to go on to the court and play with them here and there. I became under 9 national squash champion and represented Sri Lanka at Asian Junior tournaments in Iran and Pakistan,” said Fathoum who decided to focus only squash when she was 16.

“I thought I will focus on one sport and decided to focus on squash 100 per cent because I felt I can’t do both,” said Fathoum who hails from a family of sporting stars.

Commonwealth Games

Her eldest brother Yasir represented Sri Lanka at 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. Yaqoub broke a few records at S. Thomas’, Mount Lavinia. Yaseen and Yusuf, both played squash for the Sri Lanka junior team. Imran played waterpolo for Otters Aquatic Club.  In addition her father Naushard Issadeen is a former national table tennis player while her mother Farhana Mowjood represented her school St. Lawrence Convent in athletics.

Commitment has taken the only hijabi squash player in Sri Lanka, to the next level

“Mohammed Rizwan, a former top ranked player, was my squash coach from day one while Niranjan Casiechetty was my tennis coach. Those two really helped me,” she said.

Asked to describe how playing tennis helped in her squash career or vice versa, she said: “Tennis helped in terms of racquet strength. The tennis racquet is heavy and I used to hit the ball hard in tennis. Because of that I used to be very strong on the squash court. And squash helped me because it is a very fast sport. The movement on the tennis court was very good because of my squash,” she said articulately.


Unlike other teenagers, she has sacrificed other extracurricular activities to pursue her passion and following a strict regimen of training and diet.

“I do gym, run, do weights. I skip, swim and practice six days a week. I don’t take sugar only honey, no oils. No late life whether in, during, pre or after competition. Definitely no carbonated drinks for the past I don’t know how many months,” said Fathoum has achieved some of the early goals she set at the beginning.

“The first was to beat a girl called Mihiliya Methsarani, to become national champion, and to captain Sri Lanka,” said Fathoum for whom squash is a way of life.

She eats, drinks and lives squash

“It’s my passion. Sometimes I can’t even sleep in the night if I know I have practice in the morning because I am very like, I want to go and practice. For me that’s very important. Squash is something that I love,” said Fathoum whose role models in squash are two of the best Egyptian players in the sport – Mohamed El Shorbagy and Ramy Ashour.

Although she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, her journey to the top did not come on a platter. She had to endure personal tragedies which made her mentally tough and more determined to achieve her goals.

“I lost my two best school friends Imeshi Perera and Sharon Schuilling in April 2016. They both died in a train accident. Then in 2017, my brother’s six-month-old daughter passed away from mismanagement of dengue. They were in my school at Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya. They passed away just before our A/Ls. These were hard times for me in my career which actually pushed me to do better,” said Fathoum who derives her strength from her siblings and extended family members.

International exposure

Ranked 208 in the world in 2016, Fathoum is hungry for more international exposure and aims to join the PSA (Professional Squash Association) to further her goals.

“I don’t have that much competition right now. I feel I need more international tournament and get more experience,” said Fathoum who has begun preparations for the next competition to be held in March.

“I started training from 25th December. I don’t want to take rest. Going to get ready for the Asian team event in Malaysia,” said Fathoum who does crafting as a hobby and teaches underprivileged children.

“I also teach Grade 7 students IT and Maths at home for children who cannot afford money. It’s voluntary teaching so they also can have a life in the future. They don’t have to worry about it,” she said.

“I want to give something huge back to Sri Lanka. Build a place for the poor where they can obtain free food for all their meals. I also want to give free English education to the children who cannot afford private tuition,” said Fathoum which aptly means ‘caring’ in Arabic.

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