Female footballer paves way for other Muslim girls

When Assmaah Helal laces her soccer boots and dons her hijab, she’s empowering Muslim girls to challenge culture and gender stereotypes.

Assmaah Helal

“Hopefully one day we can make it a norm for Muslim girls to play sport and represent Australia,” the 28-year-old said.

Ms Helal works full-time with United Football, a not-for-profit organisation based at the University of NSW, promoting soccer in schools across western Sydney with refugees, new migrants and socially disadvantaged children.

Last month she visited Indo­nesia to run a two-week pilot ­clinic with the Jakarta-based Inter­national Centre for Islam and Pluralism and the Australian embas­sy to promote football for girls, including in Islamic boarding schools.

“The majority of them had never touched a football but they watched it a lot and could list all the players,” she said.

“It was great to see the support not only from the girls but from the directors of the school and their male peers.”

“I was blown away because they are such a diverse population in terms of how they practise Islam — from the traditional conservatives to the more liberal and modern Muslims — and because it’s such a huge population, people work together with their differences,” she said.

In her spare time, Ms Helal runs futsal tournaments through the GoActive initiative, targeting Muslim girls to enable them to take part in sport within a “competitive but culturally approp­riate” environment.

“We have inter-school gala days between Islamic and government schools,” she said.

These opportunities weren’t available to Ms Helal, who joined a boys’ team, aged five, because there were no girls’ clubs in her area.

The experience of wearing the hijab on the field as a young girl had stolen some of her self-confidence.

“But as I matured and real­ly understood my religion, I used that as a tool to be proud of who I am,” Ms Helal said.

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