In the final part of our series on Muslim women and girls in sport, Auckland teenager Aysha Hussan has burst onto a worldwide powerlist of sportswomen, with a dream to score an Olympic first.
At just 14, Aysha Hussan has already achieved so much, as the New Zealand face on the global Muslim women’s sports powerlist for 2020.
A promising track athlete and netballer, Hussan says she knows it’s “a big achievement” to be on the list with 34 other Muslim women involved in sport around the world.
The teenager sits proudly alongside 400m hurdles Olympic champion American Dalilah Muhammad, and Indonesian climber Aries Susanti, the first woman in the world to climb a speed wall in under seven seconds.
Then there’s Emirati Zahra Lari, the first international figure skater to compete wearing a hijab, and her fellow countrywoman Amna Al Qubaisi, ‘The Flying Girl’, who was the first Middle Eastern woman to test drive in Formula E (that session in Saudi Arabia in 2018 was just months after the country lifted its ban prohibiting all women from driving).
Although she’s yet to rush onto the world athletics stage, Hussan has set herself lofty goals. As well as wanting to be a doctor, it’s her dream to become the first Muslim woman to represent New Zealand at an Olympic Games.
“I want to run the 400m,” says the Year 9 student at Botany Downs Secondary College in Auckland. “I have to work hard and keep on striving, then I can get there one day.”
The people closest to Hussan – her parents and her coach – say the young woman may not yet fully realise the magnitude of being recognised by the international Muslim Women in Sport Network, who are behind the powerlist.
Dr Nida Ahmad, a researcher at the University of Waikato who’s on the global network’s executive committee, says making the list at such a young age is a “huge accomplishment” for Hussan, and should inspire other young girls to also follow their passion.
“I think she is slowly realising what it means to be a young brown Muslim woman in sports and the importance of her visibility to others,” Ahmad says. “There is great power in her visibility.
“She’s going to have an impact on young girls and women when they see someone who looks like them or comes from a similar background and a love for sports.
“Also, for Muslim parents or families who may be hesitant for daughters taking up sport, seeing someone like Aysha may help shift those perceptions.”
Hussan’s Fijian Indian parents, Susan and Immran, say they have always encouraged their athletic daughter to play sport – even if it means she has to wear uniforms with short skirts or shorts, considered immodest in Islam.
“We’re not going to stop her competing because of the dress code,” says Susan Hussan. “I know there are other Muslim girls who want to come out and compete, they have the talent, but their parents won’t let them because of the dress code.
“I know she’s a Muslim girl, but I don’t want to restrict her from doing the things she’s good at. Her father and I are both on the same wavelength – she needs to go ahead and live her life and do what she’s enjoying.”
Aysha says she would rather have her arms and legs covered beneath her netball dress – “the dresses are really short” – and wear tights instead of track shorts. But that hasn’t deterred her from competing.
Hussan started playing netball at seven, and two years later, a coach who recognised her speed encouraged her to try athletics. At an open day at Mt Smart Stadium, the Hussans met track coach Pawan Marhas.
Marhas runs the AMMI Athletics Club in south Auckland, a club he says embraces “the athlete minority… athletes who have a talent but who don’t have a proper platform where they feel welcome. They take time to settle in, and then hopefully compete in the mainstream.”
Hussan has thrived as a runner. Her sprint relay team broke records, then won gold in the 4 x 100m at the 2018 North Island Colgate Games; last year she was the 800m champion across Year 8 girls in Counties. At 13, she was the youngest female athlete running at last year’s Fiji Coca Cola Games – dubbed the biggest schools athletics event in the world.
Hussan is now in her first year of a full sports scholarship at Botany Downs College. She’s been trying to train towards the school’s cross country championships, but at Level 3 lockdown, she could only run around the block outside her home.
Her school netball season has been fitful, and the annual Muslim netball tournament has been called off. But that hasn’t put her off her goals.
“Aysha is really dedicated and focused,” Marhas says. “According to how she’s moving now and how focused she is on achieving, I’m 100 percent sure she will make the Olympics if she carries on. She just needs to keep working and she will become an international athlete.”
The importance of safe space
Marhas sees many barriers for young athletes, especially from Muslim and Sikh communities. “At grassroots level, the reality is they face some discrimination on the basis of their colour, ethnicity or the way they dress. It’s a common problem around the world,” he says.
“I always push for flexibility and inclusion. I try to involve the parents and make sure they are on the field when the kids are working… so they feel like they’re part of the journey. Involve the parents, so they are an arm’s distance away, and the kids feel confident.”
One of the main discussion points in the recently released Building Cultural Inclusion in Sport report – led by Dr Ahmad and Professor Holly Thorpe about the experiences of New Zealand Muslim girls and women in sport and recreation – was the importance of ‘safe space’.
Most of the Muslim women in the study referred to safe space as women-only environments, but others spoke of the importance of finding sports facilities where they experienced culture respect, understanding and belonging.
A few of the women have even set up their own women-only programmes, like boxing classes, to help other Muslim women find safe and supportive spaces to be active.
‘Muslim women are often ignored in conversations around sports or are painted in a stereotypical or one-dimensional light’ – Dr Nida Ahmad
Some of the women also described encountering discouragement from family or community members.
Immran Hussan says he has only ever supported his daughter playing sport.
“It gets very complicated putting [Muslim] girls into sports, because of the clothing requirements and the way they mix and mingle with the rest of society. But it’s a good thing for girls of Aysha’s age,” he says.
“Many Muslim people are waiting for change, but to be part of the change, you have to be out there. When participation numbers go up, surely change will come.
“I want Aysha to go out and do what she’s good at and what she enjoys, and maybe promote awareness in the Muslim community to come out and take part, and represent New Zealand.”
As far as sports clothing restrictions go, LockerRoom checked with Netball New Zealand and Athletics New Zealand on their uniform policies.
In Netball NZ’s regulations, exemptions can be made for clothing or adornments that have “a particular medical, religious or cultural significance” – as long as they are safe for the athlete and others in the competition. Athletes are encouraged to get an exemption from their netball centre.
Athletics NZ, who are trying to be leaders in diversity and inclusion, says all athletes must “wear clothing which is clean, and designed and worn so as not to be objectionable”, and it must not impede the view of the sport’s judges. Some Muslim women already wear the hijab when competing in New Zealand, says Hamish Meacheam, the sport’s community manager, and they’re working with clubs and centres to “accommodate any individual needs”.
One to watch
Hussan wasn’t the only New Zealander recognised by the Muslim Women in Sport Network this year.
Mazlinah binte Haji Mohamad Noor, who has made the ‘Ones to Watch’ list, is on course to becoming New Zealand’s first female Muslim karate teacher. She began learning karate in 2013, at the age of 47.
As a senior student (senpai) she now teaches others and helps run classes; some of the training sessions take place in the basement of the main mosque in Wellington, attended by children and adults, males and females, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Hoping to be graded for her black belt this year, she has also offered to establish a ‘sisters-only’ class.
American-born Ahmad, who moved to Hamilton to complete her PhD, is included in the 2020 emeritus list.
These lists, Ahmad says, are to make people more aware of the positions Muslim women and girls hold in sports, and to highlight the successes of Muslim sportswomen. More than 200 women around the world were put forward this year.
“Muslim women are often ignored in conversations around sports or are painted in a stereotypical or one-dimensional light,” Ahmad says. “There are exceptions but still more work needs to be done.”
She’s now helping to plan a ‘virtual summit’, which will be led by the younger generation of Muslim sportswomen around the world. Young women like Aysha Hussan.
“Often we look to someone older as a role model,” Ahmad says. “But for younger girls, or even girls Aysha’s age, it allows them to see a fellow peer as a role model, or potentially inspire others to follow their passion.”