ABU DHABI – Assmaah Helal, the Egyptian Australian woman who fought to overturn an international ban on Muslim women wearing hijabs in football, says Muslim women are still fighting for their sporting talents to be recognized, The National reported on November 12.
Helal spent the past decade promoting social change through sport by working with refugees and other marginalized communities.
“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.
The 32-year-old woman began playing football with her brothers when she was five.
“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.”
“It gave me this other level of social connectedness and inspiration and confidence,” Helal explained. “It is a team sport, as opposed to the sports I had been doing, which were very individual.”
Fear of Marginalization
She initially worried that wearing a hijab could be a barrier for her, but it never was as her fellow team members were very accepting.
“But as I got more involved in my community, I started to realize 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?’” she said.
In 2012, a ban on women wearing the hijab, over concerns it was dangerous and could lead to strangulation, was trialed. Helal played a central role in a successful campaign to overturn the rule.
“I wanted to make sure this campaign was for the future generations of girls.”
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.