Muslim women find purpose in AFL
May 30 2011
Just behind the towering goalposts of the Gallipoli Mosque, in the heart of Sydney’s west, is a sight that would make AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou fall to his knees and weep with unrestrained joy.
Here in the heartlands of rugby league, tabouleh and fully-sick cars, a green shoot of Australian football has taken root.
The Auburn Tigers football side that trains every Wednesday is not, however, just another team. It is a primarily Muslim team. A primarily Muslim women’s football team.
At the National Press Club this week, Demetriou spoke about the challenges facing his code and asked: “How do we make our game relevant to a 10-year-old Muslim girl?”
The answer is: get her older sisters to sign up for the Auburn Tigers and watch her follow.
Amna Karra-Hassan gives you some idea of how big a cultural gap has been leapt, where 25 per cent of the population is Muslim and 10 per cent Chinese.
Most of the girls in the Tigers are of Lebanese background but there is also a Fijian, Bosnian, Turkish and Afghan member too.
“And an Anglo,” Karra-Hassan says.
The 22-year-old has never watched a game of football on television or live, but she has played in four competition matches in the Sydney women’s league after being encouraged to form the side. She has never heard of Gary Ablett but volunteers a fact that will have Demetriou blubbering all over again. She knows who Israel Folau is.
The AFL is hoping Folau, the rugby league convert who will play with the Greater Western Sydney Giants at the nearby Olympic stadium next year, will be a conduit for a cultural and geographical group that has never engaged with the code.
Karra-Hassan explains that the Muslim girls are observant of their religious customs and so play in headscarves and with covered limbs. They have a strategy ready for the day a scarf is lost in a tackle and plan to surround the victim until it is reinstated. “Our first priority is to make sure the girl is comfortable,” she says.
The Auburn Tigers began last year as a Muslim club and the boys’ side won the fourth division premiership in its first season. The women only began this year, prompted by the urging of the NSW AFL multicultural officers. They will have a female coach and have asked the Tigers’ male side to keep away on their training nights and game days.
On the cultural barriers to forming the team, Karra-Hassan is frank.
“Girls don’t play sport is the big one,” she says. “My dad has that attitude and it took a while for our parents to become comfortable with it. Luckily, Dad doesn’t even know what AFL footy is, but if he ever saw me get tackled I would be in so much trouble.”
Karra-Hassan says that the other women’s sides have been helpful.
Asked if the game ever gets rough, she shrieks: “Of course it does. We are from Auburn!”