Amna Karra-Hassan is the epitome of a sporting enigma but at the same time is everything sport should be about, particularly football in the 21st century.
Raised as the eldest of six in a large Lebanese family in the suburbs of Western Sydney, Karra-Hassan had no idea what Aussie Rules football was until adulthood.
As for other sports, she says her father encouraged swimming but being somewhat overprotective, did not allow them to play competitive sports other than at school.
“We all had an interest in sport but it was a combination of things: one was my parents believed we needed to focus on school and the other thing was my dad is very overprotective and he was always very concerned about us breaking bones; so instead of sport being a positive thing in terms of health it was seen as a potentially risky thing in terms of health,” she said.
But the children did not go completely without sport with her father making what he thought of as important exceptions.
“The only thing we really did was we all learned to swim - Dad put us in swim classes because he understood living in Australia, you’re surrounded by the beach and that it was very important as a life skill that we knew how to swim,” said Karra-Hassan.
At 15, Karra-Hassan went through a bit of a rebellious period, not unusual for a teenager but she says when her mum fell pregnant, she initially found it hard to deal with. All that changed when her baby brother was born as she developed a special bond with him. Being the eldest child she took on somewhat of a carer role.
At the same time, school was causing her to think about the value of what she was doing with her life. A smart girl, Amna was doing well at school with little effort and so started to feel dissatisfaction and even a sense of failure over not having to try very hard.
“I think there were just so many things happening inside (at that point in my life) on a personal and emotional level that I was trying to process it all and make sense of it as a young person.
"It in that period where I was trying to think things through that I thought what is the worse that could happen if I actually gave it a shot.
"I’ve got nothing to lose and I would at least find out if I was smart enough to make the cut and get into uni and even if I don’t know what I want to study – that’s an achievement in itself,” said Karra-Hassan.
The right advice at the right time
At this point Karra-Hassan benefited from the guidance of the two women in her life – her mother and her aunt. She reflects on these strong role models as making the difference at a time when she was looking for balance.
“Mum wasn’t a huge advocate of my rebellion. But she herself was naturally a very strong fiery personality. So I think mum’s strength and attitude definitely rubbed off on me,” said Karra-Hassan.
“I also had my aunty. I trusted her a lot and she was a fantastic role model to me; she always said the things that I don’t think girls hear enough about being a good person. She was a good person to talk to she was a shoulder to cry on. And when I now go to schools and I talk to young girls, I always talk to them about finding those people outside the core family unit and building a support network, because that’s what my aunty was for me.”
“Instead of allowing me to continue behaving in a way that left me as an outsider, I think my aunty was trying to find a balanced approach - I wasn’t submissive but I wasn’t rebellious. I wasn’t really at either extreme but I think she was just trying to pull me somewhere into the middle where I learnt to negotiate those dilemmas in a balanced and healthy way,” said Karra-Hassan.
Since then, Amna Karra-Hassan has made a practice of being anything but traditional.
She works for the Australian Federal Police and is the founder of a women's Australian Rules football team which is now an integral part of the plans for the new AFL Women’s National competition beginning next year.
“It’s not just through sport that I think I’ve shocked so much – I mean there’s nothing really traditional about me except that I wear the scarf,” said Karra-Hassan with a laugh.
“I work for the AFP and I play AFL! And both of those are male dominated environments – AFL is seen as a masculine sport and working for the police is seen as a masculine job. So for me, it’s about redefining how we perceive femininity. Why is femininity not strong? Why can’t we play a sport that has tackling – why is that a masculine sport? Why is policing seen as a job that only strong men can have and not that strong and capable women can have as well?” she said.
Karra-Hassan also has a strong role in the community and often speaks at schools posing these exact questions.
“So the conversation I have with girls when I go to schools is ‘How do we identify and define our gender binaries and do we accept them?’ I want them to think about what does gender mean to them and what are the gender roles defined for them and do they accept them?” said Karra-Hassan.
From the park to the backline
It was in 2010 when Amna Karra-Hassan added sport’s team founder and footy player to her list of achievements due more to her own initiative than to anything else.
“In 2010 I was working for the AFP and we were one partner in a Harmony Day event – and one of the other partners was the AFL and I had never heard of AFL footy – didn’t know what it was,” admits Karra-Hassan.
While planning the event Amna suggested that a Women’s demonstration game, as well as the traditional men’s competition, might be a good way to engage and include local women in the festival.
“So that was really my introduction and on the day I participated and that was my first ever interaction and participation in AFL footy. It was modified, there was no contact, and I was so excited - I thought it was such a dynamic game,” she said.
Later that year her cousin, who was playing for the local team, was so excited about the world footy was opening up to him, and knowing Amna’s nature, challenged her to establish a team for women.
“So I just decided to do it! Sometime around August when the season was wrapping up, I messaged every single girl that I knew in my phone – without prejudice – and asked if they wanted to come and by October we were in pre-season training with about 30 to 50 girls coming and going every week. We just started with basic fitness. We kept it simple.
"We didn’t talk about AFL. We just said we’re going to start a footy team and we start training on Wednesday – we didn’t introduce a footy for months,” said Karra-Hassan.
“It was just fitness – it was getting girls who hadn’t played sport since school, used to running, sprinting, jogging, stamina and endurance – just building those things and confidence – because some of them hadn’t run outside of school, in public places and they went to girls schools so they were pretty shy and awkward about it. It was also just getting to know each other – so it just happened.”
Karra-Hassan says the effect on the group was not only about fitness and preparing a sports team but there was a significant social impact as well creating relationships and friendships.
Slowly building towards their first season she eventually introduced a football into the mix and paints a very funny picture of the result.
“We were like seagulls, everyone was running after the footy and we couldn’t get the girls to understand about staying in space – it didn’t make sense to them,” she laughed.
Having survived the first season, Karra-Hassan prepared for 2013 and it was then that the GWS Giants approached her with what appeared, on the face of it, to be a no lose proposition - adopt the colours, name and branding of the AFL Giants team and combine to engage the traditionally non-AFL and multicultural community, not only with AFL but also to Women’s football.
“The relationship with GWS has been incremental and required a lot of courage,” she said.
It was another major decision that required Karra-Hassan to make what she felt was a leap of faith – but she weighed up the pros and cons, trusted her instincts and jumped in the deep end.
“So in 2014 (as the Auburn Giants) we made our first ever Quarter final; in 2015 we made the Preliminary Final which is the closest we’ve got to the Grand Final and this year in 2016 we got promoted to Premier Division in Women’s football in NSW,” Karra-Hassan said with great pride.
The partnership has definitely born fruit, raising the awareness of both AFL and for Women’s sport let alone Women’s football in the western suburbs of Sydney as well as the broader sporting landscape.
“It has definitely helped in terms of awareness. It’s such an amazing game!” she said.
A Brave New World
It has been a big year for both the Auburn Giants and for Women’s AFL with eight teams being granted licences last month – the Giants being one of them.
For Karra-Hassan it has been a big ride for the past five years but says the journey has been well worth it. The local community has welcomed the women’s team and AFL and being granted one of the prized licences has only added to that strong foundation.
“For me I feel it has put us in a position of strength in terms of women in sport because there are so many sports a girl can play and I feel like now I can say this is the one and this is why,” she said.
Karra-Hassan’s love for the game is obvious but it is the lessons she consistently takes out of it and passes on to young women that it the most impressive.
“I think discipline is one. When you’re playing a physical game it can be tough. So I tell them it’s the mental toughness that you develop – and you develop this in all sports – but there’s something about when you’re playing a very physical game. You learn a lot about discipline and respect - respect for yourself, respect for your team and respect for others,” she said.
“The discipline I think is a transferrable lesson across all of your life. If you learn discipline out on a football field, there’s nothing that comes close in any other aspect of life at teaching you composure and learning to let things go and focus on the task at hand.”