By Amna K-Hassan
This article is part of our March theme, Sport and Human Rights. It’s also part of a series of articles looking specifically at the role of women in sport.
“Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” This was the inscription on the medallion given to every player at the end of our 2012 AFL footy season.
In my faith, there is a legacy of strong women who excelled in their own right. They were scholars such as Aisha bint Abu Bakr, businesswomen such as Khadija (who was also the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and his employer) and warriors, such as Khawla.
These stories are part of a larger collection of women’s narratives that inform my decision-making process. These stories motivate me to also be a woman who leaves a legacy to inspire others.
I believe God has been watching over me as I live out my destiny in every aspect of my life.
The first time I participated in Aussie Rules was for a Harmony Day demo game and it was exhilarating (not to mention we played modified rules with no tackling)!
One of the co-founders of the local men’s team suggested I start up a women’s team and join the club. I had already played a trial game, how different could it be?
In October 2010, I messaged all the females in my phone contacts list. I didn’t let the perception of each friend influence whether I clicked send or not – even though I was thinking no way, Barbie doll, princess, strict parents, too conservative, and the list goes on.
I was amazed at how many women came to training. There was no shortage of interest. We had an average of 40 girls at training twice a week. Lael Kassem (our trainer, coach and the only person who knew the rules) had to go back to basics because the majority of girls had given up on engaging in physical activity. Some of them hadn’t participated in school sporting activities and conveniently menstruated weekly or felt sick. Parents had restricted others, and some came for social reasons with friends.
After a great first year the women’s team returned for what we hoped would be a great experience. Unlike our first year, the second year was turbulent.
…[my critics] could not reconcile the dynamism of Islam that I discovered with their sexist attitudes disguised as concern for their “sister” in faith.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “The religion is easy, do not make it difficult,” and yet I struggled with men who challenged me with religious arguments and cultural stigma. It sent me on a consultative journey for answers from religious leaders (Imams), community leaders, my mentors, and my heart.
I sought out English-speaking Imams with an understanding of the Australian context and classical Islamic education. I spoke to Imams from the main schools of thought in Islam.
Engaging the Imams proved to be a thought-provoking process. I went with a straightforward question: “Is it prohibited for Muslim women to engage in outdoor sport, namely Aussie Rules?” I learnt that Islam offers a host of views on this issue. Each Imam provided me with the tools for how they derived the opinion they gave me.
One of these Islamic legal concepts was Maslaha (public interest). If what we do brings benefit to the community and removes the participants from time-wasting behaviour or negative circles of influence, it is better to have this alternative than to have nothing (even if the situation is not ideal).
A significant benefit was creating a platform for women who felt isolated from the mosque and religiously observant community. The team became a means to discover their cultural, spiritual and social identity.
Another consideration was restricting the interaction with men. This is due to the Imams concern with preservation of modesty, dignity and honour. There were also considerations of women from various ethnic communities and the possibility of cultural disgrace associated with casually interacting with men. We play in a women’s league, which removes half of the obstacle. The uncontrolled variables are male spectators; however, in community club sports spectators are minimal.
…the Imams I consulted left their answer open and allowed me to make the decision. They provided me with the guidelines so that I was better positioned to make a conscious choice.
There were also concerns around whether we can wear modest clothing in compliance with Islam. This applied to women who choose to wear the headscarf (hijab) and women who do not.
Another Imam was more concerned with the type of sport we play, as Aussie Rules is a contact sport. Being tackled and contesting for the ball means we may end up in all sorts of positions on the ground and he was concerned about safeguarding the integrity of the participants.
Although there was a diversity of opinions, the Imams I consulted left their answer open and allowed me to make the decision. They provided me with the guidelines so that I was better positioned to make a conscious choice.
Community leaders, friends and mentors were supportive and advised me to ignore armchair critics. When I shared my learning from the Imams, they stated that these guidelines are not restricted to women; rather the same principles apply to men as well.
The diversity of viewpoints encouraged me to think about the moral dilemmas of playing contact sport. I was more concerned with the impact on the state of my heart. Playing a contact sport can be very exhilarating and it arouses a desire to be aggressive (tackle, contest and “hip and bump”) towards the opposition. I questioned whether the internal motivation changed from its original intention and at some point as players we intend to harm another human rather than fairly play the game.
I also realised in my year of difficulty that my tongue manifested the ugliness of the hurt in my heart. Unfortunately, I think this had a wider impact on the participants and I felt we became less concerned with maintaining the highest standard of etiquette and manners. It was in our club culture to have the courage to be patient when another does wrong by one of us. Virtue of the tongue when emotional and sincerity of the heart when hurt are a constant struggle. Playing contact sport is a weekly test of character.
Despite informing my critics of the wisdom of those Imams that I had consulted, they could not reconcile the dynamism of Islam that I discovered with their sexist attitudes disguised as concern for their “sister” in faith.
They narrowly interpreted the religion and relied on bad cultural elements to justify taking away the right of choice to participate. I find this manipulative and it highlights the issue is not with women, but it is with patriarchal men.
In every difficulty there is a blessing and after every hardship comes ease (Quran 94:5).
Despite 2012 being a difficult year, it challenged me to seek answers and that in itself was a blessing. It started conversations on the ethical, moral and spiritual dilemmas for women who play outdoor sport. It also revealed there is a need to create opportunities for women who prefer to participate in more intimate settings.
Founding the club independently of the men in 2013 has been a time-consuming task. The AFL has been supportive and the women who volunteer have worked tirelessly to establish the foundation. We are still working, learning and evolving. I am constantly questioning if we are sticking to the guidelines offered by those I consulted and continue on my journey to seek guidance.
My faith is one of beauty and diversity. There is flexibility in my faith for women to play sport and remain devoted to using religious principles as a moral compass.
Despite the diverse theological influences and cultural differences between the players, they share their love for the game and for the sisterhood. They also share the passion to make a difference for women who have been lumped into a narrative prescribed for them by patriarchy and systemic oppression, justified by misusing culture and misinterpreting religion.
Islam is a religion of pluralism and our choice to participate is not a deviant innovation. Rather, it is a perversion of the faith to simply render Islam as a black and white canvas with only one way of doing things. My faith is one of beauty and diversity. There is flexibility in my faith for women to play sport and remain devoted to using religious principles as a moral compass.
I found my answers in the Islamic faith. The vastness of the faith has strong principles and one of them is to honour and protect women. This does not translate to “make decisions for them because they are incapable of using their intellect and owning their opinions”. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) introduced unprecedented rights for women. It is unfortunate that globally, women are still having the most basic conversation about their right to participate in society. I believe men are crucial advocates and agents for upholding the rights of women.
“Consult your heart. Righteousness is about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil…” Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The most meaningful consultation is with my heart. Seeking guidance doesn’t restrict me to obeying the instruction of others. Ultimately, I am accountable for my actions.
I witness players grow as they travel the roads of their hearts and minds. For some, it has been a life changing experience. It gives them a sisterhood and a safe place to explore their identity, struggles with their self (image, worth and esteem), improve their discipline, explore their faith and connect with their inner strength.
This team by no means is restricted to Muslim women; part of the learning and development has been the intercultural and interfaith experiences on and off the field. Beyond the curious conversations about fasting in Ramadan while playing footy in the heat while wearing hijab, the women converse about daily life (work, study, family, dreams) and their perspectives on contemporary issues.
As the women on the team nervously step onto the field for the first time, thoughts of uncertainty, confusion and doubt of capability will naturally run through their minds. I am certain by the time they come off the field at the end of the season, thoughts of triumph, courage, confidence and sense of achievement will be felt.
It’s more than footy – it’s about faith, freedom and family.
Thank you to my friends who contributed by reading and editing this article. A special thanks to Crescent Wealth Investments and local restaurant Hawa Charcoal Chicken who support our dream by committing to sponsor the Auburn Tigers Women’s Team for the next three years.
Amna K-Hassan is a 24-year-old passionate advocate for young people and women’s rights. She is the cofounder of the Auburn Tigers Women’s Club. Amna works for the Australian Federal Police Community Liaison Team.