The young women changing the face of Aussie rules

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AFL clubs want more diversity in the sport, but for some young women, they first need to convince their family it is OK to play.

Much to the confusion of her soccer-obsessed family, Zahraa Al-sarraf has recently started playing Australian rules football.

“I know everything about soccer, but not about the footy,” her father Ayad Al-sarraf tells SBS News.

Zahraa tries to explain it: “I say, it’s like a soccer ball, [but] squished down.”

The 15-year-old from Adelaide grew up in a Lebanese and Iraqi family and started playing the game through school.

“I now know how to pass, I can kick; I want to show some people how I can do it.”

Zahraa Al-sarraf,
Zahraa Al-sarraf, 15, recently started playing Australian rules football.
SBS News

It was her enthusiasm for the sport that helped secure her a role play day at Port Adelaide Football Club, filling in for chief executive Keith Thomas.

Wearing club colours, she led a pack of adult male employees and addressed top players.

She acknowledged it was unusual for a girl, particularly of her height and background, to take the reins at the club.

“I feel like everyone here is really tall, they’re really big; I’m a girl. I do come from a Middle Eastern background and maybe that might intimidate some people,” she said.

But she's not afraid to be the face of change.

“It takes time to get to where people are now, and I’m just glad that I get to be one of those first people.”

Port Adelaide Football Club
Zahraa and friends at Port Adelaide Football Club.

Across the code, AFL clubs are increasingly seeking out more diversity on the field as well as in the stands and behind the scenes.

On the other side of city, Cecile Saidi has been appointed Adelaide Crows’ multicultural liaison officer.

Ms Saidi is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it’s her job to get more girls and people from diverse backgrounds involved in the sport.

She says many young women face unique barriers to playing.

“Women from my culture, it’s very hard for them to get out of the house, let alone join a sport that is considered violent.”

“Finding time for training ... commitment to a club, that would be hard because the timing would be clashing with her own family duties.”

Cecile Saidi
Cecile Saidi, centre, is Adelaide Crows’ multicultural liaison officer.
Rhiannon Elston / SBS News

There’s also the question of uniform, particularly for those from conservative cultures.

“[In] almost every sport, the uniform is a barrier,” Ms Saidi. “But as you can see, I am fully covered, so there are ways around it.”

Then there’s dealing with the problem of racism, which plagues the code right up to elite level.

“It’s something that will have to be dealt with, obviously, but it will take time,” Ms Saidi said.

Ross Wait, general manager of community at Port Adelaide, hopes Zahraa’s involvement will blaze a trail for others to follow.

“Hopefully it inspires her, and not only her [but] her peers in the community,” he said.

“It’s not just a boy’s playing space, it’s also an opportunity for women, an opportunity for people from culturally diverse backgrounds to work within the AFL, which is really important.”

Zahraa’s interest has filtered through to her supportive father, Ayad.

“I will start to search everything because I want to know everything about AFL,” he says.

“I’m very proud of her.”

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