When Amna Karra-Hassan started the first women’s AFL club in Western Sydney in 2011, she didn’t realise what it would become. She speaks to Cathy Jacobs.
I was motivated to start the footy team for two reasons. One: I think that all girls should play whatever sport they want.
Two: as an Australian, Muslim, Lebanese woman who lives in Western Sydney, everyone had an opinion on the politics of my identity. It was my way of reclaiming that conversation.
I am that post September 11 generation and I hate to frame it that way, but it’s true. It overshadowed my teen years, in terms of what was happening in the world and what people were saying about me. Then there was also my lived experience at home and at school having to navigate being bi-cultural.
It felt like communities that I belong to, even western Sydney as a region, were constantly under scrutiny and constantly reported in a way that was negative — where all the problems are. All of my identities were associated with problems.
I’m very passionate about talking about how we create a sense of place for people that is positive.
If I get the opportunity to go to a school and talk to girls, or if I get to do it through coaching, or if there’s some other space for that connection, then I’m definitely going to be the first person to step up and lead from the front.
We’ve come a long way from novices
When we started as the Tigers, none of us knew how to play footy. We didn’t have a sponsor, we didn’t have a coach, we were figuring it out every week and just having fun as a group of girls.
As time went on I recognised that we needed to professionalise it with organised sponsorship and a good committee who understood governance. I had a conversation with GWS Giants and we adopted their brand.
That was probably a very smart move because it led to so many other things that we didn’t forecast, like the AFLW competition. We were positioned really well to be part of that change movement for women.
We made the shift from participation to high performance. There are now a lot of highly competitive athletes pursuing their dream.
They are very focused.
I’ve never been paid for the work with the club. It’s not why I started and not why I still do it seven years later. When something is fulfilling and enjoyable, I don’t think the money matters.
I have a very high level of commitment as chief of operations, coach and player. Every week I am at all the trainings for juniors and the seniors. I do everything from cleaning our sheds to helping write a CV or listening when someone needs support.
I love coaching. For me it’s giving back. What can I give those kids who lack the self confidence, like I once did? How do I demand more of them and say “I want you to have fun, but I want you to take yourself seriously”?
Change takes a while
With the girls who are aspiring for the AFLW, I make sure they have the right coaches, physiotherapists, whatever physical and psychological support they need to achieve their goal.
The fact that I play footy at a community level is as elite as it gets for me. But it’s my dream to make elite competition come true for the girls in our club, if that’s what they want.
The change process actually takes a long while. It could be decades before we see the outcomes we are pursuing in the AFLW to ensure the best possible standards.
While there is room for criticism that this is not being reflected equally across men and women’s football, we also need to be realistic about the nature of change. It takes time.
What helps me know that I’m effective is seeing the little wins.
I might not get the big win right now, I might have to wait 10 years, but the little wins are young girls playing footy; playing any sport they like.
You don’t need to shrink yourself
I definitely had a defiant spirit when I was young but I felt like I needed to silence that voice.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve just owned the fact that my skin is a little bit rebellious, passionate driven. It wants more.
But it took me a long time to believe you don’t need to shrink yourself; you don’t need to downplay what you’re feeling because people expect you to be a good girl or more passive. Coming into my skin has been such an empowering experience.
Girls and women email me all the time to tell me I inspire them.
I’ve realised that I am that person who, when I was young, I’d look at the tele and think: “where is she? I can’t see her because these women don’t look like me.”
I am that woman who tells young women who look like me, and who don’t, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it doesn’t matter if all the odds are stacked against you, that you are capable beyond your wildest dreams.
Helping others to heal my heart
I’m currently on a year’s unpaid leave from the Australian Federal Police where I’ve been in community engagement for eight years.
I needed the time to heal after losing my younger brother Fathi in a road accident.
He was a tradie by day and a personal trainer by night and when he wasn’t doing those things he was in the gym with my younger sister. We’re a very active family; we’ve always supported each other. His death was heartbreaking.
The community response was unbelievable. Thousands of people came through the mosque for prayers, to the cemetery, to our home.
People were giving us a lot of money to do good work to honour his life. We built a deep water well in Somalia but we felt that was not enough because he was such a larger than life, generous person.
So we decided to build a school, in his memory, on a little island called Tanna in Vanuatu. We have teamed up with Muslim Aid Australia to help this remote community which was hit badly by Cyclone Pam.
We’re half way with the fundraising to finish that school and we’re hoping to do some other things to help the Tanna community become sustainable with good facilities.
This is my consistent way of being committed to honouring Fathi’s life and healing my heart.
The power of volunteering
Don’t worry if you don’t know where to start. Start somewhere. Just start.
Volunteering and that mindset of giving back is where I learnt everything. It’s what equipped me for the workforce and what has taught me important life lessons.
I hold a strong value of compassion, but compassion can’t be dormant.
We can’t say we care about our society then sit on our hands and be armchair critics.
I am a public speaker and I sit on two boards, the Council for Australian Arab Relations and a not-for-profit women’s health initiative called Go Active. I live and breathe the stuff around active, healthy lifestyles.
I recognise that we can influence change at many levels, from the grassroots to contributing to policy and strategy on boards.
I struggled for a long time with imposter syndrome but I spent a good amount of time working through issues that made me want to be less visible.
Now I claim words like “boss”.
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