In part two of our series on Muslim women and girls in sport, young footballer Huda Anas is working towards more women of colour representing her club and her code.
Huda Anas has played football since she was five. But growing up in a Sri Lankan Muslim household in Wellington, she can’t recall having a female Muslim athlete to look up to when she was young.
“I would see ads on TV and they would have women in sport, but it wasn’t Muslim women in sport. And there wasn’t a very diverse range of people,” the now 18-year-old says.
Instead, her motivation came from within.
Anas knew if other young Muslim girls saw her playing sport she could be “that person that everyone looked up to,” she says. “I would be that motivation for girls younger than me, and they would say ‘Oh, that’s someone like me! I could do that too!’” the Wellington Girls’ College student says.
With the rise of social media, Anas recently came across Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim American fencer, who became one of the models for Nike’s first made-for-athletes hijab.
In 2016, Muhammad was the first American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, and won bronze in the team sabre.
“That really inspired me because she plays for the Olympic team… she’s gone so far, and she’s a Muslim brown woman, so that was someone I could relate to and someone I started to look up to,” Anas says.
She knows from personal experience seeing other female Muslim athletes being represented in the media will encourage others to keep going, as it has for her.
For Anas, being able to see diversity in sports teams and sports organisations is crucial for people to know they are welcome. “Seeing is believing,” she says.
Another of goal for Anas, who plays centre back, is to help develop women’s football, and women’s sport, in New Zealand. So she’s working with her North Wellington Football Club to improve their social media presence and provide a platform allowing women to have a larger voice.
“I want to go the extra mile and use people of colour to represent the club more, because it would make people feel more welcome,” she says.
With an improved, inclusive and diverse social media presence, Anas believes others “would love to join this club because they’re advertising someone from the black community, or someone from the Asian community,” she says.
“I don’t want to take away from other players, but it would be nice to see people of colour being represented more by the club.”
Last year, Anas was involved in a University of Waikato study that looked at the experiences of Muslim girls and women in sport and recreation in Aotearoa. The research, led by Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad, focused on understanding how Muslim women access sport and active recreation in New Zealand, and the barriers they face when they do.
At an event to launch the report in Hamilton, Anas found there were a lot of Muslim women expressing they’d feel more comfortable if there were female-only areas for training.
“If this was implemented in a swimming club, there would be female-only swimming times,” Anas says, as well as options for female-only squads, competitions and coaches – providing “a more comfortable space” for Muslim women.
Anas also wants to see changes in the policies and education around sporting uniforms: “Making sure that it’s friendly for all religions, so you don’t have to have referees coming up and asking you to take off your long skins, because that’s not part of your uniform – but it is part of my religion,” she says.
Not only has Anas been asked to take off her skins on several occasions at football games, she’s also been asked by a referee to remove her hijab.
“That’s like common religious knowledge that people should know,” she says. “If you see a woman wearing a hijab, then they are from the religion Islam, and that’s something they have to wear.
“That was kind of shocking to me, that he would even bother to ask me that.”
She believes true diversity will come from a place where people are “educated about different cultures and different religions, even if it’s just really basic knowledge; but that basic knowledge can make people feel all the more welcome”.
Anas is a talented player – she made the MVP list at last year’s national secondary schools’ second tier Grant Jarvis tournament with her Wellington Girls’ College side. Her team also won the Wellington region premier league.
But she also has a strong interest in coaching in the future, and says she would ensure inclusivity and diversity within her team and club.
“I would make sure all of my players feel comfortable and that they can talk to me, especially when it comes to cultural issues and differences between players,” she says.
“I would educate my players as well. Like if someone else was a Muslim in the team and they were fasting, and maybe they wanted to take it lighter during training – because they’re a bit tired, they’re not eating or drinking all day – I would make sure my players know what is going on.”
Anas’ love for sport and her determination to improve the diversity, representation and inclusivity of women in sport in New Zealand, is a game changer. She will help to ensure that the next generation of female Muslim athletes in New Zealand grow up with many role models – who look just like them.