Muslim Women and Sport in Australia
Dr Jennifer E. Cheng from the Religion and Society Research Cluster at Western Sydney University is investigating the relationship between Muslim women and sport through the Auburn Giants AFL team. This project has been partially funded by the Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation at the Australian National University which 'exists for the study of all kinds of bigotry and the promotion of diversity and inclusion.'
Until now, the focus on the relationship between Muslim women and sport has adopted a 'deficit model' whereby Muslim women are 'integrated' into existing mainstream cultures through sport (Toffoletti and Palmer, 2015). However, the relationship is far from unidirectional where Muslim women only receive benefits from participating in mainstream sporting programs. On the contrary, the relationship is bidirectional: Muslim women can be leaders in sport, set up their own teams, become trainers, coaches and umpires, and influence sporting culture in general.
This project explores the Auburn Giants, an AFL team in Sydney set up by a Muslim women and comprising mostly of Muslim players.
Fieldwork for this project involved 14 one-on-one interviews with players from the Auburn Giants which took place from August to September 2016.
Preliminary findings from the project show that:
- Muslim women can be leaders in sport, and train and coach others to also become leaders, which creates a positive cycle for future generations.
- A culturally and religiously diverse team like the Auburn Giants creates a positive image of what ethnic minority women can do in sport in Australia. Through their coaching and umpiring work, players can be role models for younger girls from diverse backgrounds who may only see Anglo-Australian sportswomen in the media.
- A diverse team can make sporting culture in general more inclusive– for example, rather than basing socialising and celebrating after matches around drinking alcohol in pubs, which can exclude certain cultures and religions and family members under 18, the Auburn Giants create a more family-friendly and inclusive atmosphere by socialising around food.
- The Muslim women on the team find Islam a source of guidance when playing sport. Far from seeing religion as a hindrance to playing AFL, they accommodate Islam in their sporting practices and harness its benefits to the extent that they play their best games during the fasting period of Ramadan.
The preliminary findings were presented at the "National Multicultural Women's Conference" in Sydney in November 2016 and at the Australian Association for the Study of Religion conference in Melbourne in November 2016. This project will have important policy impacts as several sporting associations, such as AFL NSW/ACT and Netball Australia are looking at more ways to include diverse communities around Australia. Furthermore, the findings are important in combatting negative stereotypes around Muslim women, their capabilities and their place in Australian society. This project can reshape policies around Muslim women which, instead of assuming deficits and disengagement, frame Muslim women as skilled, resourceful and engaged.