Between faith and football

Amna Karra-Hassan shares her journey: from UTS to conquering cultural barriers and the AFL.

Amna Karra-Hassan with her team-matesAmna Karra-Hassan is a pioneering daughter of modern Australia. At 21, she was the Muslim-Australian girl who confounded the white male world of Aussie Rules football when she started a women’s team composed of players from Western Sydney’s minority communities – most of whom had never even seen an AFL game before. 

Now, at 28, she continues to champion the vital role sport plays in breaking down cultural barriers as the President of the Auburn Giants Football Club and a board member of the Council for Australia-Arab Relations with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She is also a former NSW Youth Advisory Council member, a NSW Australian of the Year 2017 Local Hero finalist and a TEDx speaker. Karra-Hassan is also on the Reform and Culture Standards Team at the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and she is an active role model for Muslim-Australian women.

Between all this, she still manages to squeeze in some time to tackle other women on the footy field three times a week.

“I had to really fight hard to do all of that,” says Karra-Hassan.

Tackling all obstacles

Born and raised in Sydney’s western suburbs, she faced many tough obstacles, beginning at home.

When she was 18, her father objected to her going to university, wanting her to marry and have a family instead. By strategically recruiting the support of her mother and grandfather, Karra-Hassan won that battle and made her way to UTS to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Organisational Learning.

While at UTS, she took on the role of Women’s Officer for the UTS Muslim Society. Combined with the diverse and practical nature of her degree, Karra-Hassan was considered the perfect candidate for a pilot community engagement program run by the AFP. The program’s aim was to build rapport, trust and policy legitimacy between the AFP and a deeply sceptical Western Sydney community.

Initially, Karra-Hassan shared this scepticism. In her neighbourhood, there were tales of police harassment, particularly during the early era of the Middle East Crime Squad. Karra-Hassan’s plan was to blow the lid off the endemic corruption that she thought must have existed in the AFP.

“I thought I was coming in as a crusader! I was going to investigate and expose the corruption. Then I went in there and realised I knew nothing.”
Karra-Hassan’s learning curve was steep. For seven years, she built bridges between the AFP and Western Sydney’s diverse communities, and she now advises on strategies for crime prevention by finding ways to partner with community organisations.

It was a partnership between the AFP and the AFL for Harmony Day in 2010 that sparked Karra-Hassan’s interest in football. A cousin challenged her to start a women’s AFL team and despite having no qualifications to do so, having never played or even watched the game before, she agreed. She convinced a group of willing girls to attend a training session; and the female Auburn Tigers AFL team was born.

They were, initially, terrible. She recalls: “Our attitude was ‘if I can’t kick the best and I can’t handball the best, then the best I can do is tackle someone as hard as I can’.”

"... if I can’t kick the best and I can’t handball the best, then the best I can do is tackle someone as hard as I can ... ”

But it was also a unique opportunity to bridge  a cultural chasm.

“The perception of AFL is that it is an Anglo-Australian game; not a game for culturally diverse communities,” says Karra-Hassan.

“Soccer is for culturally diverse communities … AFL was barely known … I could have played soccer, but it wasn’t going to push the envelope. It wasn’t going to shift any thinking.”

For the girls who played, it was also an opportunity to bridge their bicultural worlds.

“Many of the girls are Australian-born kids to migrants. This was about the girls understanding that you actually belong to two camps and there is strength in belonging to two camps,” explains Karra-Hassan.

“We had great conversations about what it means to be Australian. I remember some of the girls saying ‘I’m not Aussie’ even though they were born here; or asking me questions like ‘Amna, do you think when we go to the opposition’s field they’re going to be racist to us?’

“And that was simply because they lived in Western Sydney. Their parents had experienced racism in the past, so their perception was that all Anglo-Australians must not like migrants.”

After some touring, Karra-Hassan observed that perceptions were indeed shifting, and this inspired her to fight for the team’s long-term viability and make it independent from the men’s club. She needed to find sponsors.

“It was scary,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how to write a sponsorship proposal. I had to ask Google for a template.”

Eventually, Karra-Hassan established a mutually beneficial arrangement with the Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL Club, and so the Auburn Tigers became the Auburn Giants. Soon after, Katie Page, CEO of Harvey Norman, approached Karra-Hassan and offered to sponsor the Giants. This was the first time Harvey Norman had ever sponsored an AFL team.

Culture clash

But Karra-Hassan was fighting a cultural battle on several other fronts. Some members of her Muslim community suggested that women playing football was inappropriate and possibly prohibited under Islamic law. Believing that her faith was being manipulated against her, Karra-Hassan fought back.
“Religious guilt is ugly. It’s like emotional blackmail,” she says.

“I had to learn very early on, through learning Islam, seeing my family live out Islam, that there were things that I absolutely knew were and were not true.”

Some of the toughest conversations that Karra-Hassan had to have were at home. Her father didn’t want her or her sister to play football, and the intrusive religious guilt only made it worse. Proving their marriage prospects were still bright despite rolled ankles, broken noses and bruised faces from football was a constant challenge.

She recalls of one such conversation, “I would ask, ‘what’s wrong with it? What do you object to? Is it religious or cultural? Because if religion doesn’t say it’s prohibited, then what is it culturally that you don’t like?’

“Then I listened to him and addressed those things. And then he could go away and think about it.”

Karra-Hassan draws upon these conversations when she represents Australian Muslims. She is willing to sit down with anyone who is willing to sit down with her, who is open to asking questions, listening and sharing ideas about her Muslim heritage.

Deeply spiritual, her choice to wear the hijab came from years of learning how Islam was practised by different people around her, and ultimately refusing to let the occasionally oppressive behaviours of some fellow Muslims defeat her.

Instead, it inspired her to delve deeper into her faith, particularly the ways it enhanced her life. This motivated her to engage more profoundly and publicly with it.

She loves to push against cultural boundaries with honesty and sensitivity. She embraces the best of what Australia has to offer – kicking around a football with friends, barbecues at  the beach and long bouts of basking in the afternoon sun.

“Apart from our First Peoples, we are all from migrant families. For me, that’s why Australia celebrates multiculturalism. It’s not political: it’s a real, lived experience”

“Apart from our First Peoples, we are all from migrant families. For me, that’s why Australia celebrates multiculturalism. It’s not political: it’s a real, lived experience,” she says.

Over the years, Karra-Hassan and her more traditional father have turned important corners together. Recently, she insisted he attend a football awards night to witness her sister receiving an award. Seeing his daughter so celebrated and respected by the community brought him to tears.

She’d seen this emotional display of pride and love in him before: at her UTS graduation.

“That was the first thing he ever came to. There was only me and one other Muslim woman receiving our testamurs,” she recalls.

“My dad sat back and saw hundreds of students graduate and said ‘that’s my daughter up there’. And he cried.

“That was really special. I think that was the first moment that he realised it didn’t need to be so hard.”

Story by Jacqueline Robson 
Photography by Yianni Aspradakis