Women in Profile – Auburn Giants AFL team

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Players from the Auburn Giants AFL team
Players from the Auburn Giants AFL team

In 2011 Amna Karra-Hassan and Lael Kassem set up the Auburn Tigers, the first women’s AFL team in Western Sydney. In order to grow and develop the club, they adopted the Greater Western Sydney Giants colours in 2014. The Auburn Giants club is diverse and inclusive. It represents many community languages and cultures but is primarily made up of second and third generation Australians. They are most proud of their contribution to women’s sport, Western Sydney, and enhancing relationships between diverse communities.

Amna, can you talk about establishing the Auburn Tigers and some of the challenges you faced?

My name is Amna. I co-founded the Auburn Tigers women’s team, which is now the Auburn Giants Australian Football Club. In 2010, my cousin played AFL for the Auburn Tigers men’s team, and he kept telling me, “Amna, it is incredible”. “Being Lebanese, this is Australia’s game. I’m having conversations with guys on the field that I would have never crossed paths with, from the North Shore and eastern suburbs, and football is the point of connection.”

He kept encouraging me to start a women’s side, and after attending one or two games, I went, “OK, let’s make this happen.”

There were so many challenges in setting up the women’s team. The first was I knew nothing about AFL. Neither did any of the girls I had recruited. Uh, and the whole idea was, “Yeah, let’s give women a go. Let’s see how they go playing footy. Let’s create an opportunity for them to play a sport.”

The problem was we didn’t know how to play that sport, and Western Sydney is not the heartland of AFL, soccer and NRL are, so I was competing with other sports. So a combination of lack of experience, lack of knowledge of the game, lack of interest and trying to find a way to generate that interest, lack of funding – there were so many challenges but the most important one for me was the lack of sport being a priority for girls in their family and communities. My father is a classic example of that. He wasn’t very encouraging. He was like, “Oh, what’s this sport thing? It’s not important. Go study. Go work.” And so you combine all those factors and there were so many challenges we were working through.

For me, sport was important because it wasn’t prioritised, so for me it was personal, I really want to play a sport, but I wouldn’t know where to go and there would be so many reasons that my family would say, “Nah, don’t do it.” So I thought, “How can I create something where it’s available?” so it’s accessible for the girls, and then I kind of start having those conversations around, “Well, why isn’t sport a priority? Why is academia and employment more important? Why don’t we value the role sport has to play in developing young people?”

Can you talk about your role in the team and the changes the team has undergone over the last few years with rebranding to the Auburn Giants and new partnerships?

In 2011, when we first started, it was all very exciting. In 2012, we almost folded, and we almost folded because we started to understand the importance of funding and resources that we didn’t have. I mean, we had no money. We couldn’t even afford a bag of footballs. The footballs we got were donated to us or, like, given as sponsorship from the AFL, so for us it was like, “OK, we really need to get ourselves organised, and if we’re serious about this being a sustainable initiative and being here for the long term, we need to start thinking and strategising and implementing some, you know, I don’t know, best practice of how to run football clubs”. So the first thing we did in 2013 was we registered as a stand-alone club. We attracted two sponsors and we committed them into three-year contracts, and had it not been for Crescent Wealth and Hawa Charcoal Chicken making that commitment for three years, we actually wouldn’t be here today.

In 2014, I sat down with Nick Johnston, who was an employee of GWS Giants, and had a chat with him about, “Well, what would the partnership look like? What is it that benefits the Giants and what is it that benefits this women’s team? Why are you interested?” And for them it was simple. It was, “You’re about community, the Giants are about community and we’ll provide you with extra support and ensure that you remain viable.” And so that agreement made sense to me. And it was scary. We’d done so much fantastic work, like the Faith, Fashion, Fusion exhibition, countless articles, videos, and I was scared. What if we change and people forget who the Tigers were? I didn’t want to lose our roots. The way we kept our…our origin, was to keep the claw marks in our Jersey, and that’s sort of our way of paying respect to the fact that we were born Tigers, and now we’re Giants.

What personal achievements are you proud of and what opportunities has working with the Auburn Giants opened up for you?

I’ve done so many things as a result of being involved in the women’s team and growing the club. The most significant thing that’s recently occurred is I met Katie Page, the CEO of Harvey Norman, and never in my wildest dreams did I expect what would occur, but her support has been phenomenal, because what it’s allowed me to do is grow the under-14s and the under-18s youth girls’ team, and as a result of our involvement and presence in the youth space, but also in supporting and encouraging female participation in sport, I’ve been invited to countless forums, to run workshops and facilitate, um, youth events, conferences, whatever it may be, all over the world and also domestically.

But the most significant one, I think, the one that completely blew my mind was TED Talk. To do a TED Talk was my dream, and when I got invited to TEDxYouth at Sydney, I was just like, “Is this happening to me?” Cause it was…it was in the five-year plan, you know? It was like, “Keep doing extraordinary things, and one day you’ll be up there.” And to do a TED Talk at Sydney Opera House was just phenomenal. Truly like… Oh, there are no words.

To meet someone like Katie Page, who has been a mentor to me, but also such a strong supporter of female footy, and female in all levels of sport and all types of sports, but her contribution to the club and strengthening that presence that we have has been phenomenal and, I mean, I had…I had heard of her and her work around supporting women in all types of sports. It just so happened that six months after I’d heard her name, and, you know, the club was evolving and things were happening, that I saw her at an event and I just believe that that was fate. That wasn’t anything I could have planned.

Some of the other things that have occurred as a result of the footy team include our engagement with schoolgirls, and that, for me, is a very personal connection. It’s personal because I remember when I was in school, I hated it. I was so disengaged, I drove my teachers mental, and to be in a position where I can relate to these girls, and say, “Hey, I understand. You know, I thought it was shit too,” and bring them in and give them hope and motivate them and make them excited and give them structure, and, you know, sometimes you’ve got to be tough with them and say, “Really, you’re being a diva. Get over it. Start running.”

And then sometimes go, “It’s OK,” and let them cry on your shoulder and be supportive. But more than anything, to watch them have those moments of success on and off the field and see the…the excitement in their eye, that’s truly rewarding, so the personal journey for me has been phenomenal, and it was one that I could never have imagined when I started the whole team and initiative.

What issues are you keen to address in relation to women in sport?

Being one of the only stand-alone women’s football clubs in New South Wales has been a very interesting experience. It puts us in a unique position of not having too many men around, you know, inserting their way of running football clubs and what they think is best for women’s football. But one of the most important things, I think, for the girls, for the club, and for the local community, is how do we bring men in in a respectful way so that it’s still a safe female environment? But how do we bring men in? For example, how do we bring in husbands, fathers, brothers, who support women? Because I think the conversation we have in Australia around hypermasculinity or misogyny is to criticise men but not really look at ways of, well, how do you work on the attitudinal change that is required for our society to evolve? And so for me at Auburn, it’s really important that we start to have a conversation around what does it look like at a grassroots level to include men and allow women to have their safe space?

And that’s probably been one of the most, thought-provoking, difficult, most challenging aspects of what we do, because it’s not something that’s visible, so when we win premierships, if we win premierships – we got knocked out one game short, dammit – but when we do that, that’s a visible outcome. People see that, people celebrate that you made prelim final. When you start a new team, people go, “They have three teams now. They have this many players.” We can quantify things and go, “This is successful.” But we don’t measure success according to those social outcomes that are actually so important in shaping who we are and how we live. I’m really concerned about that, and I think that’s why the school engagement and engagement of young girls and their families is probably the most challenging, ’cause you could deal with senior women’s. They can go, come on their own, they can drive themselves, that’s easy. But when you have parents with more than one child, they’ve got transport issues, financial obligations with all those children, they still have other commitments as well, it becomes more difficult. So what I’d like to see is more…more community football clubs, more communities engaged in those conversations where we don’t demonise men, but we include them in that conversation, and in whatever we’re doing.

Lael can you talk about establishing the Auburn Tigers?

My name’s Lael – Lael Kassem, and the story behind the Auburn Tigers started in 2011. All my life I’ve grown up watching my brothers play AFL and really any sport, and we’ve been a really sporty family and fortunately enough we’ve probably been more competitive with one another than anyone else. I’ve always wanted…watching them, you always want to follow in the footsteps of your siblings and continue on playing footy or, you know, doing anything that your siblings do.

So, in 2011 we had the opportunity to start up a club with my friend Amna. So, Amna and I got together – we messaged all our friends, saying, “Come down and, you know, join this club.” It was really interesting because no-one knew what AFL was – no-one had probably played sport before.

I probably was the only girl who understood the game and knew the rules, so it was very, very interesting, but it was a success from the beginning. We had 30 girls show up to the first training session, and every year since then it’s just been growing and growing.

So, basically, we started from my brothers…watching my brothers play footy, then creating this opportunity to start a women’s club, and I took it with both hands and haven’t looked back.

We started off as the Auburn Tigers, ’cause that’s what the boys’ club was, and we were the Auburn Tigers for about two years.

Can you talk about your role in the team and the changes the team has undergone over the last few years with rebranding to the Auburn Giants and new partnerships?

In 2013 we had a meeting with the GWS Giants, who wanted to come in partnership with us, and Amna and I attended those meetings and we decided that for the best interests of the club was to become the Auburn Giants, so we officially changed our name to the Auburn Giants. And that for us was a big milestone to achieve, because we’re looking for a future generation of women to play sport, and this allows us to have that sustainability and have that structure in place where we can create pathways for women to come into our club and create a pathway for them to continue playing footy long into their career and hopefully one day become elite athletes playing in the women’s national competition, which is going to eventuate. And so for us, it’s been a really good partnership with the GWS Giants.

It’s also allowed us other opportunities, like playing on Spotless Stadium – that the girls have the opportunity to play on a field that men play on. So, for them it’s another element of empowerment and feeling like they’ve achieved something, which is, it’s been amazing for the club, so the switch has been really, really good in terms of our, you know, future sustainability. And that’s been our main focus – to make sure that when Amna and I are not there that the club is still running and having girls come and participate.

What personal achievements are you proud of and what opportunities has working with the Auburn Giants opened up for you?

I played a lot of sports growing up and nothing has compared to what it has been for AFL. As soon as I played my first game of AFL, I loved it and I didn’t want to play any other sport.

In my first year, I made the representatives team and ever since my first year till now I’ve been playing for the NSW women’s side, and it’s allowed me to interact with so many different people outside of the Auburn Giants.

I’ve been able to represent the club and myself to a lot of different people from a lot of different cultural backgrounds, but being, you know, the first female Muslim girl to be in that side, for me is an achievement in itself, and I hope that future girls can look up to that and see that they can do it too.

And I’ve travelled the country playing AFL footy. I’ve been to Cairns, been to Melbourne, I’ve had the opportunity to play on the MCG, which is amazing. And it’s been a really good experience.

It’s had its ups and downs – I’ve had, you know, struggles to get into the team and feel like I earned that position. Sometimes, you know, I have those thoughts where I don’t think I’m good enough to play in the team, but I think that’s a good thing, because other people can understand that it’s not just easy for me and it’s not gonna be easy for you – there’s gonna be a struggle, but if you really want it, then you got to work hard for it. You’ve got to push past any barriers that come your way and, you know, tell yourself that you are good enough, and prove it and go on the field and do that.

Looking forward, I think AFL, what my goal is to make the GWS women’s team and play in the national competition, which comes out, hopefully in 2017. So, I hope that through the representative experience, I get to play on a national league against everyone in Australia on that big stage, so hopefully I can get in.

One of my biggest achievements with footy has been receiving the 2015 Goal of the Year. This was a competition run every year, and it’s both a men’s competition and the women’s competition, so it’s a prize won from all competitions, and from the men’s premier league all the way down to women’s Division 2.

Um…and I was fortunate enough and lucky enough to get that – to be awarded with the Goal of the Year. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it, but… I really wanted to hide away from the fact that it was a really good goal, but now I think I should stand up tall and be proud of it, because this is the first time a woman has won this award. From the first time till now, it’s all been men, so for the first time for women to win this award, I think it’s a really, really proud moment and it just shows the talent that we have in women’s footy, and I hope that I can, you know, keep this legacy and that other future women can keep winning. And like I said, I hope that I can, you know, be that role model for a future generation of females and from all cultural backgrounds to say, “She got that award I can do that too.” And I’m really proud of it and I think that it’s a great legacy to hold, and I know that there’s gonna be many other females after me to win that award, and probably win a lot more awards than me. And I’m looking forward to it.

What have been the challenges of establishing and sustaining the Auburn Giants women’s team and why do you think sport is important for women?

So, the challenges involved in starting up the club were probably a whole lot of…a big list. And I think the biggest thing was teaching these girls the…You know, team sport involves so many different elements, and I think the major thing that these girls…having not been part of a sport before, or a team before -things like responsibility. You know, rocking up to games on time. I remember so many times that we’d have to call girls up the day of the game, an hour before kick-off -”Where are you? Come down.” Just…it was because they didn’t have that sense of responsibility before, so I think that that was probably a really big challenge.

Another challenge is probably just…Every single girl and, I think, every person, whether female or male, they learn differently. So, as a coach, and I coached the club for the first two years, I had to find ways to teach the same thing to 10 different girls in 10 different ways, because some were visual learners, some were more, learners on a piece of paper. I had to explain things to some people. Every female learnt differently, and so for me
I found it really challenging to try and explain and teach all the different elements in AFL footy to so many different girls in so many different ways so everyone can understand.

Um…other challenges were the fact that girls…lack the self-esteem or confidence to think that they were good enough to play footy. Every girl that I’ve approached to play AFL, their first response is, “I’m not good enough.” And for me, that’s really sad, because I want to empower women and I think the best thing about this club is empowering women and…and for me, the challenge is getting these girls to come, to believe in themselves that they are good enough. And the proudest moments I’ve had with this club is by the end of the season, the girls coming up to me and telling me, “Lael, I did it. “I played footy. I caught the mark. I ran a lap without stopping.” And they have amazing smiles on their faces and it’s just incredible to see that they go from not believing in themselves to believing in themselves. And it is a challenge, but one worth overcoming every single year.

For me, team sport has given me a sense of, um…it’s allowed me to strengthen my identity of who I am and what I believe in, my values. And I think sport has so much benefits off the field that changes your life forever, and I’m one that advocates that sport can change the world one person at a time. And every single girl that comes into the footy club, their lives have changed – not just on the footy field but off the footy field, in terms of their work and life and everything outside of footy.

Sport gives girls a sense of achievement. So, they come in and they achieve certain things that they thought they couldn’t, which this gives them the self-confidence to achieve things outside of footy. Sport gives girls the sense of empowerment that they are good enough and that they can do things outside the scope of what society tells them they can or can’t do. And I think the biggest thing that sport can provide for women is a sense of belonging and a sense of a family and a home that girls can come to and they can connect with one another and have that social circle where they’re all in the same boat – they’re all coming to a football club
to play footy and have that sense of sisterhood with one another.

It’s something that they’re gonna have, those friendships, for lifelong. And outside the footy field, these friendships and these achievements that they take on together, it’s gonna be life-changing for them, and I’ve seen it first-hand, where girls have come to the footy club, they haven’t gone outside the Auburn area or the Bankstown area, and being part of footy club, you obviously travel to all the different clubs, and that in itself is a benefit that every single woman should be participating in, because as you travel and you meet different people, your life perspective changes in terms of who you meet and the experiences you’ve had.

So, we’ve had experiences where we’ve travelled to Wollongong and, you know, some of the girls, it’s their first time travelling to Wollongong to play, and we had a barbecue there. We invited all the other clubs to come down, and it was a fantastic experience for them, so… The benefits of the physicalness of getting fitter and getting more healthy is fantastic, but the life lessons that we taught outside the footy field that comes with being part of a team, I think, is one that every single girl should take the opportunity to play.

Interview with Amna Karra-Hassan [7:54]

Interview with Lael Kassem [6:03]

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