AFLW footballer and Muslim trailblazer, Haneen Zreika, sat out this weekend’s Pride Round due to her religious beliefs but does a clash of values always have to equal a sin, wonders Irfan Yusuf.
I was scrolling through Facebook one day in late January when I saw a photo of a young woman wearing an AFL jumper. I noticed the woman had brownish skin, and that the story was a news item from The Australian newspaper. I skimmed over the words. Something about an AFLW Muslim player objecting to the jumper because she thought it “does not align with her religious beliefs”.
I then looked at the jumper which had “Harvey Norman” emblazoned on it. And I wondered what the big deal was. Surely in the age when big businesses refuse to return Jobkeeper profits to the taxpayer, it’s hardly abnormal to regard Harvey Norman to align with anyone’s religious beliefs. I kept scrolling.
Later I started to hear from friends who were active in interfaith and multicultural affairs spaces. They were unsure about how to respond to this situation. I then learned that the AFLW’s first Muslim player, Haneen Zreika, was refusing to where a special jumper designed to celebrate LGBTIQ pride. It reminded me of the many debates I’d had with fellow Muslims on issues like same sex marriage and gay conversion therapy. It also reminded me of nasty people who would imagine me to have views on LGBTIQ folk akin to those of violent ISIL caliphate lunatics who would murder anyone whose sexual practices didn’t meet theirs.
Both sides have little understanding of what pride means and how societies subscribing to Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have historically treated the issue of sexuality outside and beyond their teachings. But I’m not hear to write about theology. I’m here to write about solidarity, culture and justice.
There are lots of people in this country whose views and practices don’t accord with mine, whether for religious or cultural reasons. For instance, I’m a strict teetotaller. But that doesn’t make me a teetotallitarian. If others wish to drink, that’s fine. As long as they don’t force me to drink or buy them alcoholic drinks, that’s find by me. Why don’t I drink? It’s a religious and cultural thing. In my North Indian ethno-religious heritage, drinking alcohol is an absolute no-no.
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Here’s another cultural thing among my mob. When I was growing up, Indian women tended not to wear cloth on their head. Hijab wasn’t the in thing. The first Indian woman I saw wearing a scarf was the lady who ran the spice shop at Bondi Beach. She was Indian. She was also Jewish.
So when a Muslim says that they won’t wear or support or participate in something because it goes against their religious practice, you can’t take it for granted that everyone who shares their religion agrees with them. For instance, I can understand why cricketers like South Africa’s Hashim Amla and Afghan captain Rashid Khan refused to wear alcohol logos on their jersey. But I couldn’t understand why some of my Muslim friends criticise Haneen Zreika for breaching religious modesty requirements by wearing a sleeveless jersey and shorts. No doubt some would even expect her to wear a hijab.
Haneen is quite open about her religious faith. As the first Muslim woman to play AFLW, she certainly is a trailblazer. “I have a responsibility to represent my faith and my community,” she writes on her Instagram account. Please, Haneen, leave your “community” out of it. There are plenty of young Muslims struggling with their sexuality. Many hide their struggles, receiving little or no support from religious leaders or family networks that us straight Muslim folk take for granted.
Haneen would have received support from her team-mates and club as she may have battled with the naysayers of her community who lectured her on how a Muslim woman should not be playing sport in shorts. She may have faced plenty of Islamophobia from fans. As a young Australian Muslim from the 9/11 generation, Haneen would understand what it’s like to have her faith and culture constantly treated as a security threat. She would understand what it feels like to be treated as a potential terrorist.
Even today, when I apply for a job, I am hesitant to write down on my CV all the various skills I learned from my various religious community involvements. I’m so used to imagining potential employers rejecting me because of my heritage, my unpronounceable name, my skin colour etc. Imagine how bad it might look if I told them I organised activities for Muslim teenagers in my 20s.
You don’t have to be gay to understand the stigma that so many LGBTIQ folk feel. It really hit me on Christmas Eve in 2019 when I sat in Sydney Town Hall and joined a Christmas Eve service with some Jewish friends. It was an LGBTIQ-friendly congregation, and many worshippers felt unable to attend church with their families. The sermon was about how Jesus always made time for those who were marginalised.
I have no doubt that Haneen had thought about her decision long and hard. I’m sure she did not wish to offend the sentiments of her club, players and fans. But I would encourage her to understand that her struggle as a young Muslim is so similar to other young people (Muslim or otherwise) who must struggle with their sexual or gender identity everyday.