In another instalment of the Siren Spotlight series, Rana Hussain delivers some creative writing to navigates the experiences of a young Muslim girl participating in sport.
Summaya ran between the horizontal lines of the bitumen multipurpose court at East Keilor Primary School. She could see Cassandra ahead of her, all pink cheeks and intensity as she ran, springing off every blue line. Cassandra’s netball skirt was the perfect length, Summaya thought. Running past her bloomers, it stopped a quarter of the way down her thigh. Summaya’s netball skirt fell all the way down to her knees. This was firstly, because of her mother’s desire for as much modesty as competition rules allowed, and secondly, because Summaya’s ‘extra insulation’ as her father called it, and short height meant a netball skirt the right size for her waist was way too long for her height.
She wasn’t sure whether it was the ‘Indian’ or the ‘Muslim’, but Summaya knew being allowed to play club netball was unusual. None of her other friends from her community played sport like she did. Summaya suspected letting her play was one of the parenting hacks Ammi discussed in her weekly faith classes with other Muslim mums. Ammi would say, “you see, our girls are growing up here. In Australia. We need to show them how to be Australian and Muslim. Let them fit in”.
The team are in pairs passing the ball back and forth in a speed that seemed like fast forward to Summaya. Her wrists felt like they had shattered every time the netball smacked her palms. Though it stung like hell she didn’t flinch and held onto the ball only to release it back rapidly to her partner. Unlike the Saturday morning matches at Royal Park, Summaya actually enjoyed Wednesday night training. On Wednesdays, running around, catching and swatting netballs came naturally to her, or at least, less awkwardly. She also loved the chatter of the other girls, who though neglected to ever speak to Summaya, would discuss with each other the latest lunch order mishap, latest episode of Am*zing or cool upcoming excursion.
Training also meant that Summaya could wear her trackies instead of her too-long netball skirt. Having bare legs was simply not part of her Muslim upbringing. She and her sisters wore leggings and a t-shirt over their bathers at the pool or beach and there were certainly no bare legs under dresses or skirts. Being bare legged under her netball skirt on Saturdays felt risky. On game days Summaya never really felt like herself, but Wednesday training was where she could relax in her navy school PE tracksuit pants with the zips at the ankles.
“Switch! Cassandra you’re with Summaya” yelled Coach Lindy.
Cassandra let out an audible “urgh” that accompanied her regulation eye roll. Her soured face didn’t change for the duration of the pivot drill. Summaya equally dreaded being paired with Cassandra. To Summaya, Cassandra lived in a parallel world, where mothers were always courtside, where there were no extra rules of modesty or culture to navigate, and sport was effortless. She was queen of the glass enclosed world Summaya pressed her nose against but never made her way into. At Summaya’s first ever netball practice, Cassandra loudly decided that she couldn’t partner with Summaya because, “that stuff on her hands looks like a disease”. The ‘stuff’ was the remains of henna on Summaya’s hands from her cousin’s wedding. It was when none of the adults milling around stepped in that Summaya understood Cassandra was in charge. Not only was she captain and the best player on the team, she ruled the group with fear. In her moves on the court, in the way her green eyes assessed Summaya, and in the words she spoke, Cassandra was sharp.
“You know, if you moved your legs faster, like, tried harder you probably wouldn’t be Wing Defence” Cassandra said as Summaya pivoted around her, puffing, sweating, catching and returning. Cassandra’s eyes scanned Summaya’s body and fixed on her tracksuit pants.
“Are they your school pants? Gross”.
Summaya didn’t need to scan Cassandra’s body for detail. Her figure was imprinted in her mind—her tall, slim legs and defined ankles on which Cassandra darted and bounced effortlessly. Her sandy coloured hair was cropped at her ears and hung dead straight. She wore emerald studs in her lobes that matched her sparkling eyes. Where Cassandra’s polo top hung on her torso with just enough room to fill with the cool evening breeze that was settling in, Summaya’s top, now moist with sweat, betrayed every inch of flesh and was pasted to her every curve. Summaya couldn’t tell where disappointment in her own body ended and her dislike for Cassandra began.
“Why don’t you wear your skirt like the rest of us? You’re always covered up. Like how your mum wears that thing on her head? Do you ever get embarrassed when she picks you up?”
A bolder, meaner Summaya would have dropped the ball right there and just as cruelly given voice to all the ways in which Cassandra’s mum might have been embarrassing. Like how her mum’s bright red lipstick usually ended up on her teeth and all crusty in the corners of her lips. And how other parents giggled at the ‘a little bit too low’ tops she would wear on match days. Yet Summaya stayed quiet as she had so many times before. But this comment, out of the many Cassandra dealt out, stayed with Summaya. There were many things she felt were beginning to be embarrassing about Ammi, but her hijab was something ten-year-old Summaya felt proud of. It hadn’t actually occurred to her until this very moment that other people might find her mother strange. Summaya felt the water in her eyes wrestling with her lower lids to spill out.
Coach Lindy’s whistle sounded. Thankfully, practice was done.
Summaya considered what to tell her mother, who would undoubtedly notice her bad mood when she got into the car. Maybe she would explain to Ammi how she was feeling. How much she enjoyed playing games and running around, but hated how she felt in that uniform, with those people. Maybe she would tell Ammi about Cassandra and her many hurtful words. Though if Ammi knew, it would most certainly trigger an actually embarrassing lecture to the entire team about respect and Summaya did not want more attention from these girls about how different she was to them.
The team stands in a circle listening to Coach Lindy who is a bluster with game day reminders and tactical strategy for the U12s East Keilor Netball team. Summaya, still keeping tears at bay suddenly hears Coach Lindy addressing her.
“Oh and Su-maay-a, Don’t forget love, you can’t wear those pants on game day. Remind your mother, will you?” Coach Lindy had repeated this request every single week since Ammi asked a year ago whether there was any chance, due to religious and cultural reasons, Summaya could play in team coloured pants. Coach Lindy’s weekly reminder seemed like her attempt at ‘support’ but always landed like an anvil.
Normally Summaya would take her time packing up after training and making her way to the car. While she wasn’t always thrilled at the company, at least the team were her age and gave her a few extra minutes of something social before homework, chores and prayers that awaited her at home. This time Summaya didn’t wait. She walked as fast as she could across the court to the street, her burning cheeks almost sizzling against the cold, sharp wind of the now dark early evening.
Summaya opened the Pajero door and climbed into her usual spot in the back seat behind Ammi. Immediately, and as expected, Ammi asked, “what happened?”. Asking in the deep tone of voice that Summaya registered not as concern, but Ammi’s ‘I don’t have time for this so make it quick’ cadence, Summaya replied, “nothing…just tired.”.
“I hope you tried hard?” Ammi said with a hint of scepticism in her voice. Summaya let the silence and the rumble of the car respond.
“Your sister is thinking of trying hockey,” said Ammi with warmth—a peace offering.
Summaya knew they were close to home and her rare alone time with Ammi was coming to an end. She gathered what little energy she had and said finally and decisively, “No. No hockey. And I’m quitting netball”.
Summaya caught sight of her too-long netball skirt spilling out of her sports bag. She leant down and shoved it right to the bottom of the bag.
Revisit more pieces as part of the Siren Spotlight series with Amy McCaan’s history of women’s baseball in Australia and Holly Hazlewood’s powerful piece on trans inclusion in sport.
Rana Hussain is a Diversity and Inclusion leader making important inroads into Australian sporting culture and the community at large. One of a handful of women of colour working in sports administration, Rana is a pioneer and a passionate advocate for social inclusion and reducing discrimination through the vehicle of sports and media. Rana’s desire to see more diversity in both media and sport sees her podcasting and broadcasting for The Outer Sanctum and ABC.
Rana is a Board Member of the Victorian Women’s Trust and sits on the Collingwood Football Club Anti-Racism expert group. She is also a consultant on the DoMore project and for the Ben Simmons Family Foundation.