Following tragedy, sport has helped people in some communities heal from trauma.

But in the aftermath of the devastating terror attacks in Christchurch, researchers Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad at the University of Waikato realised trauma recovery through sport doesn’t apply to all.

“We know sport might work in trauma recovery in post-earthquake Christchurch, but those findings didn’t directly translate to what happened to New Zealand post-March,” says Thorpe.

“The use of public places for sport and activity just isn’t culturally appropriate for all Muslim women.”

Thorpe and Ahmad are in the final stages of a research project looking at the participation of Muslim women and girls in sport in New Zealand.

Their objective is to let the voices of Muslim women who play sport be heard, to better understand what they need and the barriers they face in order to play.

“Many people around the world have an image of a Muslim woman – someone who is restricted in her life due to constraints applied by her family and religion,” says Thorpe.

“That really isn’t what we’re seeing in this project and it’s providing a strong counter-narrative to people’s assumptions.”

What is clear in the research is there are significant barriers to Muslim women playing sport in New Zealand – like sports uniform policies, training times and finding a space where the women feel safe to play.

“It’s very important to understand the needs of Muslim women and their participation in sport and exercise, just like everyone else,” says Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand spokesperson Anjum Rahman.

“Everyone has the same need to exercise and it’s about health and well-being for all.”

Girls wearing a head covering are still safe to play sport. Photo: NZ Olympic Team @NZOlympics

There are many different layers of religious customs and cultural beliefs among Muslim women, Ahmad says, and through allowing them the opportunity to tell their stories, the academics hope sports organisations here will be better informed to help make sport more accessible.

Ahmad, a US-born Muslim woman living in Hamilton to complete her PhD studies, has an extensive background working with Muslim women in sport. She is on the steering committee of the Muslim Women in Sport Network, a global group wanting to “advance the status and recognition of the role that Muslim women play in sport.”

She’s also been researching the digital lives of Muslim sportswomen and how they are using social media to represent aspects of their identities.

This latest co-constructed project involved extensive focus group interviews with over 40 Muslim woman who play sport, people who work directly with active Muslim women in sport (like PE teachers and sports coaches) and a review of policies from national sporting organisations around Muslim women’s participation in their sport.

One of the main themes emerging is how sports uniforms for Muslim women can act as a deterrent to their participation.

“Not all Muslim women wear coverings, but a certain level of modesty is required,” says Thorpe. “Sporting organisations need to be aware that not every Muslim woman wears a hijab, for example. And if she does wear a hijab, it’s still safe for her to play sport.”

In 2017 FIBA overturned a rule to allow female professional basketball players to wear head coverings, acknowledging that other players’ safety and the safety of the covered player could still be achieved with a head covering.

FIFA lifted its ban on head coverings for religious reasons on the football field back in 2014.

Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad from the University of Waikato. Photo: Supplied. 

Some sporting uniform policies that Thorpe and Ahmad have reviewed in the project don’t necessarily match what’s happening at sportsgrounds.

One particular sport insists players seek permission to wear a head covering from their regional organisation at the beginning of the season.

When questioned by LockerRoom, the sport’s spokesperson acknowledged: “Of course we would never turn any girl away that wanted to play.”

Ahmad encourages sporting organisations to make changes to “reflect actual practice”.

“The participants certainly aren’t looking at policy documents and turning away. It’s more for us to understand what sporting organisations are saying and how they could potentially be more inclusive of Muslim women in official documents,” she says.

Another big theme coming out of the project is the requirement for Muslim women to have safe spaces to play sport. A safe space is not necessarily a physical building, but a sporting culture or environment where there’s an understanding of their religious needs.

“The participants all spoke about what they think is appropriate in terms of places and spaces to exercise. As women, they need to feel safe,” says Ahmad.

“Even the coach scheduling training around prayer times would encourage an environment for these women to feel more comfortable to participate.”

The research found a lot of Muslim women enjoy swimming as a form of exercise. But finding an appropriate facility which respects their wishes can be a challenge.

For some, ‘safe’ means a swimming pool with only women around the pool, the windows covered and CCTV cameras covered over.

While Muslim women are a minority group in New Zealand, they deserve an opportunity to exercise. The women who took part in the study weren’t asking for round-the-clock access to sporting facilities, merely a small window in a safe space to meet their weekly physical activity needs.

“The sporting organisations we’ve talked to aren’t coming from a bad place. For some it’s about asking what’s appropriate,” says Thorpe. “Can we rethink the model to truly be multi-cultural and celebrate the diversity?”

There are some initiatives working effectively to enable women of diverse backgrounds to participate – from crossfit and boxing gyms to swimming centres.

Last year, the Christchurch Netball Centre ran a walking netball programme for all ethnicities including Muslim women. It was held at a local scout hall with participants able to wear whatever they felt culturally comfortable in.

“We contacted Christchurch Resettlement Services for advice, which is why the programme was run indoors, during school hours and with an area children could be looked after,” says Megan McLay, manager of the Christchurch Netball Centre.

A similar netball programme is on the cards for 2020 in Christchurch in consultation with the communities involved. Communication, Thorpe says, is hugely important in creating an inclusive environment.

Roqaya Al-Gassra of Bahrain ran in the semifinals of the 200m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

“What we heard through these women is that the barriers are not family, but how the sport is run without acknowledging the diversity of the participants and those that want to participate,” she says.

Rahman says there is definitely a perception about Muslim women and what they should or shouldn’t be doing with physical activity.

“But people are starting to see Muslim women physically active on the world stage proudly wearing their hijab,” she says.

“Like the the Iranian women’s soccer team, who were recently granted permission by Fifa to wear their hijab, and Bahrain sprinter Roqaya Al-Gassra, who made the 200m semifinals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics wearing a hijab, arm and leg coverings.”

At the last Olympics in Rio, 14 Muslim female athletes won medals.

The findings of the New Zealand research project, which also had input from Sport NZ and Sport Waikato, will be shared at a ministry level early next year.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric around sporting organisations championing diversity and being inclusive,” says Thorpe. “But actually when you hear from the Muslim women themselves, that’s not what they’re experiencing.”

The Muslim women in this project aren’t asking for exclusive 24-hour access to every sporting facility in New Zealand, they simply want a chance to exercise safely.

It remains a challenge to accommodate both majority and minority interests, but sport has such a positive effect, the more ubiquitous and inclusive we can make it, the greater the potential benefits to the wider community.

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