Setting the scene...
Australia is a multicultural country with people from many different races, religious and cultural beliefs - beliefs that sometimes may impact on their ability to participate in sport.
The following scenario explores some of the issues that may arise for Muslim people playing sport. Although the issues won't be the same for every religious group, the principles in resolving the issues will be the same.
As you read through the material think about what you would do in this situation. If you would like more information click on the resources menu item at the top of the page.
Fifteen year old Abeedah and her family have recently transferred from interstate. Abeedah applies to join a A grade soccer team and, during her try out, shows that she's a very skilled and talented player - in fact, one of the best your club has seen.
Troy, the coach, is very impressed with her ability and wants her on the team - however Abeedah was wearing a hijab during the trials and Troy is worried because she:
- seems different and may not fit in
- may want to wear her head dress and that's not in the rules
- might feel uncomfortable with the club's culture
(e.g. serving alcohol in the club rooms).
Scene 1: Joining the club
Troy really wants Abeedah on the team and approaches Marilyn, the administrator, for advice.
"Abeedah's a fantastic player and I really want her on the team. But I've not coached someone like her before. What do I need to do?"
Choose Marilyn's response.
A) "Just treat Abeedah the same as everyone else."
Great answer... provided treating Abeedah the same as everyone else means acknowledging and respecting each person's differences.
If, on the other hand, fitting in means expecting Abeedah to dress, behave and act in ways that are contrary to her religious upbringing then it's not such a good choice.
B) "Why don't you have a chat with the other girls about Abeedah and ask them to make her feel welcome"
Making Abeedah feel welcome is a good place to start however it is also important to talk to Abeedah.
Whether this happens will partly depend on how Troy talks to the girls about Abeedah. The girls may resent being told they have to make her feel welcome and if Troy emphasises how different she is, he could end up alienating her from other players.
It is important not to make assumptions about the players on the basis of their cultural backgrounds. In this case Troy should welcome Abeedah just how he would any other player.
C) "Take the initiative to talk to Abeedah about her religious beliefs - that will help you understand how you can support her"
Wanting to understand Abeedah's religion is a positive move... but would Troy do this for any other player? A person's religious beliefs can be very private. Although it is good to be informed, Troy needs to know how particular religious practices may impact on Abeedah's ability to play sport. Rather than talking directly about religion, he should discuss the club and it's expectations and identify whether there's any conflict between these requirements and Abeedah's religious practices.
Making Abeedah feel welcome will help create an environment where issues can be discussed openly.
D) "Contact her parents and ask them about her special needs"
Talking to Abeedah's parents is a good idea only if they've initiated contact or if Abeedah has asked Troy to do so. If contact is made it could open up the lines of communication and help build understanding between the club, Abeedah and her family.
Any discussion with Abeedah's parents shouldn't occur under the guise of finding about her 'special needs'. Abeedah doesn't have special needs. What she may have are different religious beliefs and practices that should be acknowledged and respected as required under anti-discrimination legislation.
Scene 2: Training with a male coach
The coach and team make Abeedah welcome and she settles in well. Two weeks after she begins training her father phones Marilyn, the administrator. He has discovered that Abeedah is being coached by a male and doesn't approve. He wants Abeedah to have female coach but the club doesn't have any women coaching at this level.
Choose Marilyn's response.
A) "Sorry but I can't help you. There's a real shortage of female coaches, particularly at A grade, so having a female coach for Abeedah just isn't an option."
It's an understandable comment - after all, if the club doesn't have a female coach at this level from a practical perspective there isn't much Marilyn can do.
Yet this reply doesn't get to the heart of the issue. A good administrator would talk to Abeedah's father about his concerns and then look for a reasonable way to address them (e.g. by making sure that the coach isn't alone with his daughter).
B) "Troy has been coaching the team for years... but I guess we can try and find a female coach. I'll see what I can do."
Trying to find a female coach is fine, but treating an exsisting coach as if he (or she) is dispensable, is not. Parents and players will occasionally be unhappy with a coach's gender, sexuality, age, or religious/cultural background - that doesn't mean they should be replaced. Any decision should take into account the views of everyone directly affected by the outcome. In this case Marilyn needs to explain the situation to Abeedah's father.
One option to consider - particularly in situations where female coaches are rare - is the appointment of female team managers. This initiative enables girls to recieve support and can reassure parents about the well-being and supervision of their daughters.
C) "Why do you want a female coach?"
Good question, provided it's prompted by a genuine desire to understand. Asking Abeedah's father why he wants his daughter to have a female coach creates an opportunity to talk about the issue. It may be that he doesn't realise the club lacks female coaches or that he's worried Troy may behave inappropriately.
Marilyn can respond by:
- acknowledging his concerns
- advise Troy to:
- avoid physical contact unless necessary for Abeedah's safety
- make sure he's never alone with her
- discussing how the family can provide support e.g. by collecting Abeedah at the conclusion of training sessions.
These preventative strategies should apply to all young women, not just Abeedah.
Scene 3: Wearing a uniform
The first game is less than a week away and Troy approaches Abeedah at the end of the final training session to discuss her clothing for the upcoming match. Abeedah has always worn a hijab, loose fitting trousers and long sleeved shirt and no-one has said anything about her attire.
What should Troy say?
A) "It's fine wearing the hijab during training but you can't wear it during matches."
Leaving this discussion until the week of the first match is not a good idea. Nor is the adoption of such an inflexible and insensitive position.
All clubs have a uniform policy that should be discussed with new members when they join. If this had occured it would have allowed Abeedah, her family and coach to talk about if and how her hijab could be modified so that it was safe, in the team's colours and in line with the club/sport's requirements.
In most cases it should be possible to modify a hijab.
B) "It's okay to wear the hijab if you want, no-one has a problem with that, but you can't wear long pants and long-sleeved tops for the match. The uniform is shorts and short-sleeved shirts. That's what everyone wears."
Shorts and short-sleeved T-shirts may be what everyone wears but that doesn't mean everyone has to wear them to the exclusion of all else.
Almost all clubs have a uniform policy. Although particular items of clothing - like shorts and T-shirts - may be seen as desirable, modifications may be possible to meet a player's religious beliefs, e.g. allowing a player to wear a long-sleeved shirt and trousers in team colours.
C) "Here's the club's uniform - I don't care how you wear it, as long as you can play in it."
Simply giving Abeedah the uniform without providing her with advice and guidance on safety issues is irresponsible.
Coaches need to make sure each individual understands relevant club regulations and guidelines.
In this case Troy should have discussed the club's uniform policy with Abeedah and her family when she joined the club. This would have enabled him to identify any concerns well in advance of the first match.
D) "Abeedah, I don't know if you've thought about what you're going to wear for the match but I just wanted to let you know that you can decide on your clothes as long as they're safe and in the team's colours."
Allowing Abeedah to decide what she wears is fine provided Troy provides clear guidelines drawn from the club's uniform policy.
Like all players Abeedah must wear clothes that are:
- safe e.g. the hijab must be secured with velcro rather than pins or ties
- preferably in the team's colours.
In some cases it may be necessary to talk with Abeedah and her family about ways to best meet the uniform policy whilst honouring her religious practices.
Scene 4: Playing during religious festivals
It's the week of the preliminary final and the team has just completed their last training session. Abeedah approaches Troy, who is feeling very optimistic about their chances, and explains that she won't be able to play because the match falls during Ramadan - a period where Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset. Abeedah believes her father won't allow her to play. Abeedah is the team's best player.
What should Troy say in response to this news?
A) "Abeedah I respect your choice but if you don't play in this match you won't be playing in the final."
This reaction could be viewed as both discriminatory and punitive.
Excluding a player on the basis of their religious practices is against the law in a number of states and territories.
B) "This game is really important couldn't you make an exception?"
Putting emotional pressure on a player because of their religious practices shows a lack of understanding and an inability to think about what missing the preliminary final may mean to Abeedah. Rather than trying to blackmail Abeedah into playing, it would be much more appropriate to talk to her about why she can't play. It may be that she wants to be part of the team but that her parents oppose her playing during Ramadan. If this is the case, then Troy could ask if Abeedah would like him to talk to her parents.
Above all, it's important that Troy respects the family's religious practices and models this behaviour in front of others.
C) "Abeedah, why don't I speak to your family? Maybe then your father would let you play."
This is a good option if it is what Abeedah wants. However Troy needs to understand that she may not want to play during Ramadan because her religion is more important to her than sport. If this is the case then club members need to respect that choice.
If Troy talks with Abeedah's father the discussion needs to focus on understanding how Ramadan impacts on Abeedah's ability to play. Although Troy could explore options that may let Abeedah participate, the final decision is her father's and his wishes must be respected.
D) "I'll see if the game can be rescheduled."
Although well intentioned, this is not a reasonable response. The season is almost over and the match schedule was set well before the first game was played. Making a complaint now may generate resentment amongst other clubs and players.
This doesn't mean that Troy or the club shouldn't raise the issue with the sport's administration. Drawing their attention to the impact of Ramadan on Muslim participation gives those responsible for next season's scheduling an opportunity to explore possible changes. Of course, alterations may not be feasible, however any changes that may make the sport more inclusive deserve to be explored.
Scene 5: The next season
The next season arrives and Abeedah not only rejoins the team, she brings three female cousins with her.
This time, however, the managment committee is prepared.
Click here to see their list of basic tips to help coaches, team managers and others work successfully with players and families with diverse religious practices.