Part three of our series on Muslim women and girls in sport is the story of Ola Shahin, who has battled depression but found peace and happiness in nature and in football.

Nature and exercise saved Ola Shahin’s life.

Nearly three years ago, Shahin walked into the Kaimai Ranges west of Tauranga with every intention of not coming out alive.

Her critical thoughts had brewed and battled behind her bubbly smile for too long. And depression and anxiety were strangling the young Muslim woman.

But something unexpected occurred that day.

“I started walking in the bush and just being around nature and the birds, something fully happened to my body. It changed. Not just mentally, but my whole body felt at rest,” says Shahin. She had moved from Auckland to Tauranga a year earlier for an engineering internship.

“I think that’s a huge thing people don’t realise. With mental health illnesses, it’s not just in your head. Your whole body changes. Just being in nature helped me realise, this is one place I can be where I feel at peace.”

Since that life-changing moment, Shahin has begun to find peace on the football field too.

Sport had always been a leisurely activity for her, but this year it’s gained importance as the 27-year-old is more determined to keep on top of her health and well-being. And she’s found another channel – coaching kids to play the game.

“I know first-hand how much of a difference sport has on mental health. I think it’s important for everyone to keep their mental health ‘healthy’,” she says.

Ola Shahin at her Manukau United Football Club’s home ground in Māngere East. Photo: supplied. 

Figuring out how to do that has been a lot of trial and error, she admits.

“I’ve tried a lot of things, and I’ve also studied and been within therapy groups that teach the psychology side,” she says. “I get really bad anxiety but now I know if I go into the ocean for a swim, it completely relieves it. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is or how cold it is – I even went last week at 9pm.”

Joining her first football team while she was in Tauranga also helped. “That way I could force myself outside of the house and get to know people,” she says.

During lockdown, running and sticking to a routine has been a necessity for Shahin.


Blogging about her experiences has been a good outlet, not just for herself but others too.

“I started the blog because in my culture, ‘depression doesn’t exist’. People can talk about ‘this person has a mental health illness’ and there is a stigma that comes with it,” says Shahin. “Some people aren’t really empathetic and understanding of why that person goes through what they do.

“I find if I put it out on my page and say ‘this is what I feel, this is what mental health is to me’ then people are more likely to read it in their own homes and they don’t have to hear me out in person. And then they can take their own stance on it.”

Shahin encourages others to put themselves out there to find what works best for them.

“But I do think a lot of the things that work involve nature and exercise,” says Shahin, who now plays her football for Manukau United.

At peace in nature, Ola Shahin at the start of a four-day hike around Lake Waikaremoana. Photo: supplied. 

Right now, she was meant to be overseas on a two-year travel adventure. But Covid-19 brought her home after only two months abroad. Even with the major detour, Shahin believes everything happens for a reason.

The change in travel plans led to a different line of work and location. Shahin is now the centre coordinator at Mangere East Community Centre in South Auckland. Her new football club is right next door.

Shahin admits the reasons for participating in the sport have changed over the years. Initially, her involvement was a double-edged sword. She knew being a part of a team would help fill the loneliness and distract her busy mind, but she was unable to fully interact with people at the same time.

It took her a while to open up to teammates in Tauranga, but even then it was mostly about football.

“Football for me now has become this support network – I love going. Because I’ve had to be open about things, we can talk about more than just football,” she says.

Occasionally Shahin would see football coaches’ meetings and noticed there were no females present.

So she spoke to Hone Fowler, the Māngere East Community Centre manager and chairman of the Manukau United Football Club, about it. “And now I am coaching the four to six-year-olds. I’ve finished my first course towards becoming a fully certified coach too,” says Shahin.

“I’ve also helped plan some Football for Freedom for Palestine [events] a few times with Hone. My parents are Palestinians, and my dad was born in Gaza. But we moved after the civil war.”

After leaving Kuwait for New Zealand in 1998 as a five-year-old, Shahin played netball up until high school and dabbled in a lot of different sports, like kiwi tag, sprinting and long-distance running.

Because of her active lifestyle, Shahin participated in a University of Waikato research project looking at the experiences of Muslim women and girls in sport in New Zealand.

The research findings showed it’s not necessarily family restrictions causing barriers for Muslim women and girls to access and uptake sport, but rather the lack of understanding cultural needs.

“I felt like I’ve gone through a range of those things [in the report] especially when I first moved here. I had moments at primary school where I felt like it was racism that stopped me from going to inter-school competitions,” she says. “But then at the same time I thought the whole uniform thing was a big deal for me as well, especially in netball.”

Ola Shahin’s Manukau United women’s football team. Photo: supplied. 

Uniforms are one of the biggest barriers for Muslim women and girls participating in sport, says Shahin. But environment, inclusion and representation are factors too.

“I feel like it’s not just one thing. It’s also being able to accept people for what their values and morals are,” she says.

Shahin says one way of putting the recommendations into practice would be to have good representation in administration roles of those who play football.

“But it’s also about having more presence in those communities and on social media. A lot of it is what you show. It’s something so small but it actually affects people a lot,” says Shahin.

“If you look at Auckland, we’re such a diverse community in that there are so many cultures, and different types of people and I think that’s a true indication of human beings. Whereas when you look at certain areas, whether it’s work or school or different areas in Auckland, you don’t see that diversity.

“Being in South Auckland and playing [football] in South Auckland, this is a reflection of people in Auckland. For me diversity is a reflection of who we are.”

Speaking up has impacted Shahin’s life, the people around her and complete strangers – for the better.

“I got a lot of people messaging me to say thank you for being open about it,” she says about that day she went to the Kaimai Ranges,”and being a voice for them. I thought that was amazing especially from within my community, because it’s so taboo to speak about these things.

“It felt really empowering and I want to try and share more, so all people are okay to speak about their experiences.”

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