AFL

For Rana Hussain, being a young Muslim and an Aussie rules fan was a tough match. Instead of turning away from the game, she forged a career fighting for inclusion and diversity. By Marnie Vinall.

AFL diversity consultant Rana Hussain

Diversity and inclusion consultant Rana Hussain.
Credit: Supplied

“Getting in the door is actually what I’m most proud of,” says Rana Hussain of her career in the AFL system and as a writer and broadcaster in sports media. “Because once I got inside the industry, I realised just what a minority I actually was. So, me just being me in an environment where I was a minority was doing the work in and of itself.”

Thirty-five-year-old Hussain’s most public role is as one of the 10 women who make up the ABC’s all-female footy podcast, The Outer Sanctum. Off-air, she’s a consultant on the #DoMore project, an initiative headed by Australian NBA player Ben Simmons, and is a member of a recently formed anti-racism advisory committee. The latter was brought together to help Collingwood Football Club implement recommendations from its “Do Better” report, an independent review into the club’s responses to incidents of racism and cultural safety in the workplace that found clear evidence of structural racism and, once leaked, precipitated the resignation of president Eddie McGuire.

Even before she took on these roles, though, sport featured heavily in Hussain’s life. Born in Melbourne to parents who migrated to Australia from India in the early 1970s, she grew up in a Muslim household where cricket was always on the TV. Australian rules was also present but more in a mysterious background role. “Footy was never our game. It was their game – Australia’s game – not ours,” she explains. “But we still watched it because it was like, ‘Well, this is what everybody watches.’ ”

But years later, in 1999, Hussain ended up falling victim to the AFL bug when a friend took her to see the Western Bulldogs play the Melbourne Demons at the MCG. “I fell in love with the atmosphere, with the game,” she says, before laughing and admitting it had something to do with a crush on Melbourne Football club great Russell Robertson.

As a young Muslim fan, however, Hussain soon realised the AFL wasn’t the most accessible sport for marginalised communities. Based on that understanding, she now wants to help others to feel like they can join the footy culture without having to change who they are.

Hussain recalls when devout Muslims, who are required to pray five times a day, were forced to worship in football stadium car parks or out-of-the-way stairwells. “We were praying in the bowels of the MCG where there’s spilt beer and, like, people looking at you,” she tells me, “and you feel really vulnerable”.

When it was announced in 2012 that multifaith prayer rooms would be mandatory at all AFL venues, the usual blowback followed.

“I remember that day,” Hussain says. “You know, as always, it was a story in the news and Jeff Kennett [a former premier of Victoria and president of the Hawthorn Football Club] talked about how ridiculous it was that there was a prayer room. I just remember feeling like, ‘Oh, I wish you could understand, you love footy and we do too; it just makes it more accessible for us.’ ”

In the years since that announcement, Hussain has forged a career in actively working to dismantle structures of inequality, both cultural and systemic, within sport. Her work has focused on gender equity and systemic racism, and the intersection between them, with a view to making the AFL and AFLW
a more accessible and inclusive space.

Hussain believes the first step in tackling systemic racism in sporting clubs and organisations is addressing the lack of diversity on and off the field and making minorities or people from marginalised communities feel safe once they’re in the system.

She says the power at top levels needs to be redistributed, rather than just bringing people from minority groups into the fold.

“I think a lot of this work started with, ‘Oh well, the answer to our problems is just to get different people from different backgrounds in our organisations,’ ” Hussain says. “But that’s not going to change anything, because all you’re doing is putting different types of people into a system that will make them feel lesser-than and will set them up not to succeed.”

Instead, legitimate power needs to be given to people from marginalised communities and minorities by putting them in decision-making roles, in administration and leadership.

As an example, Hussain cites the numbers of Indigenous people who become successful AFL players as opposed to the numbers who become successful administrators.

“We see in football an over-representation of Indigenous players in the men’s game on-field [compared with the general population],” she says. “But that’s not really mirrored in the administration when it comes to the AFL clubs and in the AFL itself.”

Therefore, she says, the questions that need to be asked and addressed are: “Do they feel safe? Are there structural or systemic barriers for them to succeed? Do they feel represented and able to do their jobs to the best of their ability?”

She says that instead of just getting marginalised people in the door, it must be imperative that once in “they can thrive and feel like they belong without having to really change who they are”.

It’s work Hussain is proud of and her eyes light up when she begins to explain a diversity and inclusion action plan she led at Richmond FC, which launched in August 2019. “It’s actually what you need to do to change things,” she says. “Set yourself some targets, put your name to something and say, ‘This is what we want to do’, and hold yourself accountable.”

Included on Richmond’s to-do list was ensuring people from marginalised communities have active participation in the club and involvement in decision-making and the right to equitable and accessible services and spaces. “The process of just creating that plan was the most useful piece of work I think I’ve done because it meant we all had to do some learning, we all had to have conversations about what does inclusion really mean, what does it look like on a tangible level, what are the specific things we’re going to do.”

Hussain explains that racism also needs to be talked about and addressed in the conversations and plans for gender equality in sports. In the pursuit of making spaces equitable for all women, “You’re going to come up against racism at some point.” The same, she says, is true for ableism, homophobia and many other problems faced by women.

“It comes back to the fact that we didn’t build it inclusively,” she explains. “And so of course now, if you’re shoehorning women into a really rigid system that exists, it’s only going to accommodate white women … When I see gender equity targets that aren’t actually for anybody else, or addressing structural racism as well, then I think, ‘Oh, well, you don’t actually mean for me.’ ”

Along with the challenges that her work often throws up, Hussain’s career is full of a lot of love, joy and connection. After doing a few guest spots on The Outer Sanctum podcast – the first in 2017 and then a few after that – the original women of the podcast asked her to join them as a permanent member in 2020.

For her, it was a no-brainer. “Now broadcasting is another love for me,” she says. “It’s given me a place to belong; a group of people who get me and get the way I see the world, and a place to unpack a lot of the stuff that can be really tricky and frustrating.”

When I ask Hussain what she wants the future of Australian rules football to look like in this country, she takes a moment. “I want equality of opportunity at every level,” she tells me. “So, people don’t have to play or love football to feel like they’re an Australian, but if they decide they want to, they should have every opportunity and ability to do so.

“That could be the young Muslim girl at home who aspires to be the CEO [of a club]. She should look at the game and think, ‘I could do that’, rather than, ‘That’s not the place for me.’ That’s what I hope for footy in Australia.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "In from the outer".

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Marnie Vinall is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.