While other teenage girls were going behind their parents’ backs to attend parties and concerts, Natasha Hill was sneaking out of her family home to play football.
The Lebanese-Indigenous Australian, who is Muslim, was living out her own Bend it Like Beckham storyline, hiding her boots and uniform in her car, away from the eyes of her disapproving mum.
“At the time, I wasn’t wearing the headscarf, so I was wearing shorts and [we argued about] being appropriately dressed, being in public. So it wasn’t perceived well,” reflects the now-28-year-old.
“There was a time where one of my relatives told me, ‘Oh, go home and get changed, don’t come back till you look like a lady.’ And I had just come back from a football game.”
But Natasha wasn’t going to be deterred that easily and after a rocky start, her whole life is now dedicated to sport.
“That mindset has completely switched now. So I’d say mum’s probably one of my number one supporters, always pushing and encouraging me to keep going, keep working with the community,” she said.
What’s stopping girls and women from playing?
There’s been a huge push in recent years to get more girls and women playing sport, but those from diverse cultural backgrounds are still less likely to get involved.
Some of the obstacles they may face include an expectation to stay at home and help look after their family, particularly on weekends.
They might not be able to afford registration and uniform fees, or have any way of getting to and from games.
Sometimes they and their families just don’t understand how the sporting system works in Australia, or the language barriers can feel overwhelming.
And often, the clubs and organisations themselves aren’t sure how to cater for different cultural groups.
Natasha can relate to many of these issues.
She works full-time in sport for development with community organisations Football United and Creating Chances, and spends all her free time volunteering as president of the club she founded, Punchbowl United FC, in Sydney’s south-west.
Like the region it sits in, the club has a majority Middle-Eastern Muslim playing base, with 30 per cent of them girls and women.
While not all Muslim women opt to wear the hijab, for those that do, sporting uniforms sometimes pose a problem.
“We allow them to wear skins under their shorts if they’ve put on the headscarf as well, and we’ve set up an agreement with the association where they’re allowed to wear tracksuit pants,” Natasha said.
Culture v religion: There’s a difference
A popular part of Australia’s sporting culture is to head to the pub after every game, to celebrate or commiserate.
But for people who don’t drink, that can be another reason to steer clear of sport — unless they can find like-minded teammates.
“So they’ve come to us knowing that we’re a safe space and that we do have those [shared] values,” Natasha added.
But she’s quick to point out the religion in itself isn’t a barrier.
“It’s something that I’m trying to push on in many mindsets of others that don’t come from my background. They’ve just got to remember to differentiate between culture and religion.”
Anyier Yuol came to Australia as a South Sudanese refugee when she was 10 years old, and her first introduction to sport was at school, in the wildly foreign form of cricket.
She can relate to Natasha’s struggles.
“There weren’t a lot of African communities arriving at that time and sport wasn’t really much discussed in our community in terms of women participating outside [school],” she said.
Cricket didn’t go down well with her family but after they forced her to give it up, Anyier managed to convince them to let her play football.
And that’s where her love of sport blossomed as she transitioned into working in sport for development.
She now runs diversity training for organisations through the Community Migrant Resource Centre.
“[I’m] able to go to sport clubs and say, ‘what are you doing to really get the conversation going?'”, said the effervescent 26-year-old.
“I think it’s about time we see action rather than just singing the song and not doing anything.”
Why sport needs to be for everyone
For most people who participate in sport, they’ll never reach any great heights beyond their regular weekend kick-around in the local park.
But that can be enough to make all the difference.
“When I grew up, I struggled in terms of learning English in school, I struggled to keep up in class with local students,” reflected Anyier.
“And so I was facing so many challenges that I had set myself apart and told myself that was I wasn’t good enough.”
But sport was her great leveller.
“We [need to] use sport as a way to encourage that confidence in young people, to encourage that football can put you on the right path, it can ground you because it creates a sense of family, it can create a sense of friendship, and it can really point you in the right direction.”
How can clubs be more inclusive?
Anyier suggests the best way is for organisations to re-examine every aspect of their operations.
“It’s about bringing the conversation to the table and say that we can’t just focus on the players at the centre, but we also need to look at the role that communities can play behind closed doors,” she explained.
“We need to look at the coaches, we need to look at the officials and the management and everyone who’s involved at a system level, rather than just focused on a player.
“We need to bring a lot of people together to say, OK, it’s time that we do have these types of conversations because sport is for everyone.”
When Natasha started her coaching journey with an under-11 boys team, one of the fathers insisted his son couldn’t be coached by a woman.
She handed him her whistle and training gear and watched as he floundered — and quickly handed the reins back.
“At the end of the season, him and his son came up and thanked me for being that role model and being that person who was able to open up their view on females in sport,” she recalled with a proud smile.
She wants to see more sporting organisations embrace a diverse range of women in leadership positions to shake up the status quo and show others the possibilities.
“I’ve tried to put myself in as a role model towards these young females. Whether it be putting myself out there on the sports field, back in an admin role, in a coaching role, I try to let them see that they can be what it is they want to be, and they do have these opportunities,” she said.