'Show up': How to build inclusive sports communities for NZ's Muslim women


New Zealand’s sports sector needs to step up its game when it comes to Muslim women taking part, new research has found.
Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad with hard copies of their cultural inclusion report. Photo: Supplied

Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad with hard copies of their cultural inclusion report

New Zealand’s sports sector needs to step up its game when it comes to Muslim women taking part, new research has found. 

In a cross-sector, cross-cultural collaboration, Waikato University’s Professor Holly Thorpe and Dr Nida Ahmad undertook a research project examining cultural inclusion in New Zealand sport and how Muslim women do – or don’t - take part. 

Their research grew out of discussions they had with each other after the March 15 attacks in Christchurch.   

We were all asking ourselves what we could do to help in the situation or to improve New Zealand, recognising that we had a lot of work to do, Thorpe said. 

She had been working on a Marsden Fast-Start project looking at youth engagement with informal sports in sites of war, conflict and disasterwhile Ahmad was nearing the end of her PhD 

With support and funding from the university and Sport New Zealand, they embarked on a mission to capture Muslim women’s experiences in New Zealand sport and how they participate. 

Thorpe and Ahmad began looking across the Waikato, Wellington and Auckland, talking to 38 Muslim women and 12 sports facilitators across all levels of sport, from high school to regional up to national. 

A similar research project was underway in Christchurch, run by Sport Canterbury and the Christchurch City Council. Together, researchers on the two projects worked with Sport New Zealand to produce the Building cultural inclusion in sports report, which had its soft launch in late July. 

For Ahmad and Thorpe, one of the illuminating themes to come out of their research was how Muslim women were perceived by others in the sports sector. 

“The biggest thing was this one-dimensional understanding of Muslim women, which is often problematic, especially within the sports sector. I think it ends up fusing religion and culture together, which shouldn't be the case. Muslim women are diverse,” Ahmad said. 

Their culture varies, their identity varies, their race, ethnicity, education, all of that varies. 

The women they spoke to were racially and ethnically diverse: Ethiopian, Egyptian, Indian-Fijian, Indian, Jordan, Kurdish, Māori, Malaysian, Pakistani, Palestinian, Persian, Sri Lankan, Somali, and Syrian. Of the participants, 18 were born in Aotearoa New Zealand and 32 had migrated.

Muslim women interviewed often reported sport was important for their wellbeing and relationships but found there were several barriers that could prevent them from taking part. 

These barriers ranged from location, cost, or family concernsbut the main barrier was feeling excluded.  

“I feel like people have really bad stereotypes of Muslims, especially women. So, having more women participate in sports and getting out there and being more confident breaks a lot of stereotypes… because our religion actually encourages sports.” - Amina, interviewee

In interviews, sports facilitators often suggested families and cultural restrictions were the main barriers for Muslim women. 

But in stark contrast, the women Ahmad interviewed often pointed to exclusion as the biggest barrier – a feeling of not being welcomed by staff and patrons at sports facilities. This feeling could play out through a lack of cultural understanding, or a lack of safe spaces including facilities like prayer rooms.  

Uniforms could form a large part of the issue too: all of the Muslim women identified dressing modestly as important when it came to sports. But this meant certain sports, such as netball and gymnastics became harder to take part in, due to uniform restrictions. 

Three girls running on a track

One of the biggest reported barriers for Muslim women to take up sports was a feeling of exclusion

These themes came out in focus group discussions, led by Ahmad, a Muslim woman herself. Once she started these discussions with Muslim women, word of what they were doing “spread like fire”, she said. 

“A lot of the women wanted other women to take part, so they spread it through their networks and that's kind of how it arose.” 

At the same time, Thorpe and Ahmad found a relative silence coming from the sports sector. 

“We did send invitations to the leaders of all the sports organisations in New Zealand, whether it's netball, football, etcetera. And we didn't hear anything back, which is striking to us when we see policy documents around building inclusion and cultural diversity in sport,” Thorpe said. 

The people from the sports sector that opted to take part were those at the grassroots level – the ones already working through issues of diversity and inclusion. 

“A lot of it was happening through [the grassroots facilitators] trying to educate themselves and they were really calling out ‘we need help here. We need cultural education programs. We need support from the top down to help us’.” 

From the report came eight key recommendations, including cultural training within the sector and the importance of creating safe spaces for Muslim women.   

For Thorpe and Ahmadthey felt a responsibility to ensure their report had a tangible impact and wasn’t just an academic article that disappeared into the pages of a journal. 

They’ve already taken steps down this path, with a workshop they recently hosted in Hamilton, with Muslim women and the sports sector showing up to discuss diversity issues.  

One thing Thorpe and Ahmad immediately noticed was that the Muslim women's voices got louder and louder throughout the discussion - partly due to safe space they could talk in. 

So, we had a private prayer room, little things like that, and when they looked around the room, they saw women that looked like them. They weren't sitting there nervously as the only Muslim woman in the room,” Thorpe said. 

A woman writing on a large sheet of paper, watched on by three others

At a recent workshop, Muslim women and sports sector representatives sat down to discuss how to make sport more inclusive in New Zealand

As the women talked, she saw the sports sector people lean in and listen. Thorpe and Ahmad were able to see the impact their work – and their report – was having. 

Coming away from their workshop, they already saw facilitators and Muslim women collaborating to sew sporting hijabs, and a sports facilitator working at swimming pools throughout Auckland starting discussions with women about what they needed. 

Steps like these are the start of a longer journey to building inclusive sports communities, but what’s the best thing the sports sector can do to keep this going? 

“Show up. Show up, show up, Ahmad said. 

“When conversations involve marginalised communities, there's heavy work that gets done by us. So, it's nice when people show up, listen, learn, and be open.” 

This article is part of an ongoing series looking at the Building cultural inclusion in sports report and the outcomes of it.

cultural inclusion in sport key recommendations