If you’ve asked Haneen Zreika out for lunch over the last month, I hope you weren’t offended when she said no.
Zreika, who is currently playing for the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the NSW Harvey Norman Women’s Premiership is a Muslim and has, for the last month, been partaking in Ramadan.
Ramadan is the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar and an opportunity for Muslim people to become closer to God and for families to come together and celebrate their faith.
One part of Ramadan is the requirement to fast from dawn to dusk. For Zreika, this certainly has its challenges.
"Last year during COVID, I was training on my own in my own time, but this year is different because of the structured training we are doing," said Zreika.
"It’s been hard. But when you are fasting, it’s just as much about the mental challenge as the physical challenge. I always feel really proud when I am able to finish training or play a game during this month."
So many of our female athletes have full-time jobs or are studying. Because of that, training often needs to take place at night which is the time that Zreika would normally break her fast.
As part of Ramadan, Iftar is the special evening meal that ends the daily fast. This happens at sunset.
But for Zreika coming to training well prepared in the evening means that she is able to break her fast just before training and then join her family for a more formal meal later in the evening.
This meal is one of her favourite parts of the celebration.
"It’s great to come together as a family because it’s not every day you get to eat dinner with your whole family," said Zreika.
Sharing these important parts of who we are helps bring us closer together as a teamRabbitohs player Haneen Zreika
"We are all so busy during the year, but at Ramadan we come together to eat at my mum’s place.
"It’s a big group of people coming together and eating together; it’s special."
While many Australians have a basic understanding of Ramadan and particularly the requirement to fast from dawn until dusk, for Zreika, her family and other Muslim people, the celebration encompasses so much more.
"It’s not just about abstaining from food, it's about the patience you develop in abstaining from food," said Zreika.
"We are also encouraged to give more to charity during this time, kindness is encouraged.
"It is such an important month to reflect and think about what elements that we focus on during Ramadan can be introduced into life during the other 11 months of the year."
The magic of Brisbane
Zreika is one of many women playing rugby league that juggles her commitments with another sport. In Zreika’s case, it is AFLW where she plays for the GWS Giants.
Across her experiences in rugby league and Australian rules football, Zreika has been surprised by the level of support she has received about her spirituality from her teammates.
Initially, Zreika was nervous about sharing her spirituality with her teammates. She was so nervous in fact that she would retreat to the carpark to pray if she needed to.
"Every year I get stronger in my beliefs and I feel stronger in sharing those beliefs with my teammates," said Zreika.
"This is who I am and they accept me for who I am.
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"We may all come from different backgrounds but sharing these important parts of who we are helps bring us closer together as a team.
Zreika experienced this support earlier this year while playing in the AFLW. For most of the season, Zreika was in a hub.
Going into a hub was a new experience for her. She lived away from home for the first time and was unsure about how her new surroundings would support her dietary requirements.
But her roommate was Jodie Hicks and the support Hicks showed Zreika instantly made her feel more comfortable.
"She ate halal food with me the entire time and really looked after me," said Zreika.
"At sunset, she would even sometimes remind me that it was time to pray."
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Now that the AFLW season is over, Zreika is enjoying her rugby league.
Zreika moved to the Rabbitohs from the Canterbury Bulldogs for the 2021 season. She’s also had the chance to meet another very important member of the Bunnies family.
"Russell Crowe came to training, but I didn’t actually know who he was at first," said Zreika.
"I had to ask the rest of my teammates who he was.
"I think I’ve seen Gladiator but he looked very different in that movie to how he looks now."
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.