When Amna Karra-Hassan founded the first mostly Muslim women’s Australian Rules football (AFL) team in 2011 she had no idea of the impact it would have.
Although the western Sydney club welcomed women and girls of all religions, cultures and ethnicities, the sight of Muslim players deftly drop-kicking a ball while wearing headscarves, tights and long sleeves as part of their uniforms soon attracted media attention and commentary. Western Sydney University sociologist, Dr Jennifer Cheng, was not surprised.
As a member of Western’s Challenging Racism Project, Cheng has been observing Muslim women and their relationship with sport since a chance meeting with Karra-Hassan in 2016.
She believes the female AFL players were seen as a bit of an oddity because their participation went against the general belief that Muslim women were not allowed to play sport because of their religion. Cheng says there is a clear association between sport and ‘Australianness’ in society and failure to participate in sport is viewed as a failure to integrate into Australian culture and adopt Australian values.
Yet, through interviews with 13 members of the Auburn Giants AFL team, Cheng found religion had little bearing on the participants’ decision to play a sport. Instead, she found that many of the women had played sport since they were young, with the support of their families.
Modest clothing is an important factor for some Muslim women and girls when deciding what kind of sport to play. “A major barrier to Muslim women’s participation in sport is lack of accommodation by the various sports codes of their dress requirements,” says Cheng. “That’s why it’s important to give them a full range of choices in sporting uniforms.”
For the participants in the AFL study, dealing with Islamic dress requirements was possible because the AFL code allowed them to wear long sleeves and leggings or tights underneath the standard uniform.
Cheng says the Auburn Giants AFL example shows that small accommodations can be significant in enabling Muslim women to participate in sports of their choosing.
“Wearing conservative garments while playing Aussie Rules has not made the participants any less integrated or Australian, nor have they had to be less Muslim or less ostensibly Muslim,” she says. “Indeed, the participants have to some extent normalised wearing a hijab while playing competitive sport.”
Karra-Hassan agrees, adding that Cheng’s research was an important contribution because it captured what they knew anecdotally as a club: “That we need to create inclusive practices, and codes need to create inclusive policies to allow Muslim women to dress in a culturally and religiously appropriate way so they can participate.”
Need to know
- Sport is associated with ‘Australianness’.
- Muslim women are keen to participate in sport.
- Accommodating religious dress requirements can make sport more accessible.
Cheng has followed her 2016 AFL study with a further examination of Muslim women’s participation in sport. This included interviews with Punchbowl United Football Club members, the Swim Sisters — a religiously diverse female swimming group — and mothers whose children played AFL Auskick. Cheng says this recent study, although yet to be published, has reinforced many of her earlier findings.
One new observation she made was that many Muslim women involved in sport reject the idea that they are breaking down barriers and stereotypes. “In a way putting them up as examples is confirming this idea that they are not the norm and they don’t want to spread that image,” she says.
Supporting this view is the Swim Sisters participant who said: “We don’t get up and train at 5am because we want to challenge stereotypes, but because we want to train and you want to achieve the goal you set yourself.”
Punchbowl United Football Club president, Natasha Hill, agrees with the sentiment. She says the club took part in the study to provide more information about Muslim women’s participation in sport. “It helped give an insight into why we do it and how we do it,” she says. “What we know is playing sport is becoming the norm in communities and Jennifer’s research gave us a platform to highlight that.”
Like the AFL, the local football association in Canterbury-Bankstown supported Punchbowl’s female Muslims by agreeing to allow the club flexibility in its uniform to meet modesty requirements.
Similarly, the invention of the burkini in 2004 by Australian Aheda Zanetti was a game changer for Muslim female swimmers. One Swim Sister said, while in the beginning women wearing the burkini had to highlight the swimwear was “approved” to avoid criticism, its popular adoption meant “nowadays nobody says anything”. Cheng says this example highlights how increased awareness can change attitudes.
Cheng believes her studies show the contribution of sport to social cohesion is not as simple as minorities integrating into mainstream competitive sports. Rather she says sporting codes can go a “long way” in engaging Muslim women by acknowledging the need to accommodate religious requirements such as dress code, women-only hours, and even alcohol-free social gatherings.
Next Cheng will be looking at how ethnic backgrounds may factor into children’s participation in extracurricular activities, both in Australia, which “largely considers itself a country of migration”, says Cheng, and in Germany “which does not”.
Meet the Academic | Dr Jennifer E. Cheng
Jennifer E. Cheng is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University. She is also a member of the Challenging Racism Project at Western Sydney University. Her research contributions lie in the areas of Islamophobia and anti-Islamophobia, migration multiculturalism, racism and anti-racism, integration and approaches using critical discourse analysis. Her recently funded projects include ‘Muslim Women’s Participation in the Auburn Giants AFL Team’, ‘Reimagining Muslim Women through Sport’, and ‘CALD Parental Experiences of Children's Extracurricular Activities’. She has published on anti-racist and anti-Islamophobic discourses, including her book, entitled Anti-racist Discourse on Muslims in the Australian Parliament, discourses on Australian values, and Muslim women’s experiences of participating in sport.
Higher Degree Research at Western
This research was funded by the Freilich Project Early Career Research Small Grants Scheme.
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Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.