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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

WATCH: The Muslim woman changing outdated perceptions with football

An Arab-Australian who fought to overturn an international ban on women wearing hijabs in football says Muslim women are still fighting for their sporting talents to be recognised.

Assmaah Helal, 32, spent the past decade promoting social change through sport by working with refugees and other marginalised communities.

Speaking to The National in Abu Dhabi, where she will participate in the National Festival of Tolerance, Ms Helal said Muslim women were still too often portrayed as oppressed in the media.

“In the sports industry, what sells is this idea of ‘the poor Muslim woman’, the poor oppressed woman who has used sport to overcome that,” she said.

“That’s still happening and we are still trying to fight that and to show that’s not necessarily the situation for certain women. It can be in certain contexts.”

She said it was an insincere and inauthentic way of engaging with Muslim women. And it failed to show the diversity of Muslim women, who do not all wear the hijab.

Born to Egyptian parents in Australia, Ms Helal began playing football with her brothers when she was five. The children would stay up until all hours of the night watching football games.

“My parents migrated in the 1970s and, for my father, it was essential that all of his children played a sport. It didn’t matter which sport that was,” she said.

“When it came to the time for me to decide, he asked what I wanted to play, and I said football. That was all we were surrounded by. Egyptians and football come hand in hand.”

At the time, there were no women-only teams so she played with boys. That was OK at first, but after a while she felt excluded. She was shy and did not feel like she belonged, so she tried other sports such as karate, swimming and tennis. But at the age of 12 she came back to football.

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“It gave me this other level of social connectedness and inspiration and confidence,” she said. “It is a team sport, as opposed to the sports I had been doing, which were very individual.”

And she has played football consistently ever since, aside from two breaks for knee operations.

She initially worried that wearing a hijab could be a barrier for her, but it never was. In fact, her fellow team members were very accepting.

And playing in a hijab was cool, at first, she said.

“I thought ‘I am pretty unique, I stand out and I embrace that’,” she said.

“But as I got more involved in my community I started to realise that this isn’t a good thing that other Muslim women aren’t taking part in football. I questioned other women, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’”

In 2012, a trial got under way banning women wearing the hijab, over concerns it was dangerous and could lead to strangulation.

Ms Helal downplays her role in the campaign that overturned the rule, but she was a central figure, with Moya Dodd of the Asian Football Confederation and Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, who was the vice-president of Fifa and head of the Jordanian Football Association.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Assmaah Helal is an Egyptian, Australian athlete who plays football, and will participate this weekend in the Etihad Tolerance Day event, under the patronage of His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance, in Umm al Emarat Park on November 11, 2018. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
Assmaah at the Australian embassy in Abu Dhabi. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

At the time, she knew she was not going to play at national or international level so it could not directly affect her ability to take part. But the issue was larger than just her.

“By banning the hijab you will be banning and excluding thousands of young women from the game that promotes itself as the world game,” she said. “I wanted to make sure this campaign was for the future generations of girls.”

They fought and won. And Ms Helal has been using sport to drive social change ever since.

She received grants from the Australian government for her work in the country and developed a Women’s Football Leadership camp, working with girls in remote communities in Indonesia.

“Her story is one we are proud of,” said Julie Shams, Australia’s deputy ambassador to the UAE. “She is a prominent sportswoman, she is using sport for social change in culturally diverse communities and she is giving back to the community.”

Ms Helal was invited by the embassy to participate in the National Festival of Tolerance. At the weekend, she held a football skills clinic at Umm Al Emarat Park.

She said: “I probably consider myself as someone who is a role model for young women and young people and opening doors for them. I wouldn’t necessarily want someone to be like me, as such.

“I want them to see me and say, if she has been able to pursue a passion of hers and she has overcome challenges and she has practised her core values, I want to be able to find my journey and path the same way she did.”