What’s the difference between Haneen Zreika and Israel Folau?

AFLW player Haneen Zreika and former AFL player Israel Folau both attracted criticism for their public stance on same-sex relationships, but what is the difference between the two?

Zreika plays for Folau’s former club Greater Western Sydney Giants, and surrounded herself in controversy after refusing to wear a special rainbow jersey promoting the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. Folau was eventually kicked out of rugby union, which he played as well as rugby league, because he posted two social media messages which offended the LGBTQIA+ community.

Zreika refused to wear the pride jersey with her Giants teammates due to her strong Muslim faith, and was subsequently left out of the team for the game against Western Bulldogs. Zreika was the first Muslim AFLW player when she debuted in 2019. Folau offended the LGBT+ community due to homophobia grounded in his strong Christian beliefs, and essentially wrote that all homosexuals go to hell.

The role of religion.

Zreika and Folau justified their stance on religious grounds. Zreika said she had a responsibility to represent her faith and community and that she respects people regardless of their sexual orientation.

Does she?

The faith she represents declares homosexuality a sin. The doctrine of the Muslim faith, when applied in society, declares homosexuality a crime which can, in some cases, be punishable by death.

Is Zreika devout?

Zreika chose not to wear the pride jersey due to her devotion. However, she wears the typical AFLW uniform every week and this is far too revealing for a Muslim woman, displaying the limbs and the hair. If Zreika was devout, would she not cover up even when playing sport, as many women from Muslim countries do in many other sports?

Interestingly, she did actually play in the pride round, the week before the jersey was worn, and ran through the traditional AFL banner at the start of the game which celebrated the LGBT+ community, and read:

“Pride round: an inclusive game for all. Everyone is welcome.”

The pride jersey was delayed until the Giants played at home the following week. Thus, did Zreika object to the pride round, or just the jersey? How likely is it that she was criticised by the Muslim community for participating in pride round and felt pressured to make a stance the following week?

To what extent was the decision Zreika’s, and to what extent was the opinion of the Muslim community, and its powerful men, made known to Zreika?

We will probably never know.

Religion also motivated Folau’s comments. The cross-code star posted a message claiming that hell was God’s plan for homosexuals. This attracted enormous criticism from many people, but Folau defended the comments as being true to his strong Christian faith. He was also warned that if he posted another similar message, he would lose his contract with Rugby Australia. He did so, and lost his contract.

Zreika posted a message on social media saying:

“…people are able to respect their right to choose how they live their life as long as they don’t advocate hate and division.”

Folau’s post clearly created hate and division, and this is the major difference between him and Zreika. Throughout the entire ugly process, Folau claimed he should be free to express his views because they are based on his religious beliefs.

Zreika is a Muslim.

Various commentators have suggested that the only difference is that Zreika is a Muslim, and that is why she has not been criticised as strongly as Folau. These commentators suggest that Australians are too scared to criticise Muslims due to political correctness of for fear of being labelled Islamophobic. They also claim these same people have no problems attacking Christians like Folau.

You can’t please all the people all the time…

The governing body has made great efforts to embrace all members of Australian society. They are the first and only major sports code in Australia to host a pride round.


Out of a genuine respect for the LGBT+ community?

Because they’re chasing the pink dollar?

Because many AFLW players are lesbians? (Are any AFL players gay?)

Political correctness?

For whatever, the AFL is known to include the LGBT+ community. They also embrace the Muslim community, especially in Giants territory. The fact that Zreika plays for the Giants added another complication for the AFL. Western Sydney is home to the majority of Sydney’s Muslim community, and if they are going to support any AFL team, it is the Giants.

The game involving the rainbow jersey, however, was played at Henson Park in Sydney’s inner west, a region famous for embracing gender and sexual diversity.

Was the Zreika case inevitable? Was the AFL bound to find itself in an unwinnable situation by publicly courting two communities which are diametrically opposed? One can only imagine the stressful meetings which must have taken place within the Giants and the AFL who were both desperate to avoid offending either group, while supporting both.

Some AFL fans are Muslim.

Some AFL fans are homosexual.

Some AFL fans don’t like Muslims or homosexuals.

The AFL is trying to appease them all.

It’s not possible to support the LGBT+ community and the Muslim community while Muslims consider homosexuality a sin or a crime. The AFL thinks it can. That said, the AFL could be said to have taken a stand. Zreika was stood down for the game, which punished her and her teammates.

Zreika has the support and respect of her teammates.

Zreika consulted her teammates, spoke to them face to face, and discussed her actions with the Giants and the AFL. Folau posted a spontaneous, offensive and hurtful message on social media, without context. Zreika certainly went about her actions in a far more mature, civilised, intelligent and respectful manner than Folau.

While Zreika reportedly had the support of her teammates, Folau also did, at least after the fact. Many professional footballers, including Gary Ablett Jr, Tim Mannah, Brad Takairangi, Curtis Rona and Taniela Tupou ‘liked’ and endorsed his posts on social media.

It’s only sport

The case also highlights the enormous strain placed on sport in Australia. Sport is so vital to Australian culture that social causes and social conflicts often manifest in sport – which is ultimately supposed to be nothing more than healthy fun. Perhaps Australians are expecting too much of sport as a vehicle for social change.

Haneen Zreika and Israel Folau both offended the LGBTQIA+ community with actions grounded in their strong religious beliefs. Folau was nominated for The Fronwlow Medal, should Zreika also be nominated?

So, what if the difference between them?

Zreika can actually play Aussie Rules.

Image: NuNa

AFL finally defeats the NRL.

The AFL has claimed bragging rights over the NRL after Elijah Taylor won The Frownlow Medal in 2020 and broke the NRL dominance of the award. Taylor was found guilty of physically assaulting his partner, and for smuggling the same woman into the team’s hotel in breach of strict COVID-19 protocols.

The Frownlow Medal is awarded to the player whose off-field demeanour epitomises the values of the modern-day footballer and draws attention to the status of footballers as role models to young Australians. It covers Australia’s four major football codes; the National Rugby League (NRL), Australian Football League (AFL), the A-League (Football) and Rugby Union’s Super Rugby competition.

NRL players have dominated the medal since Shaun Kenny-Dowall won in 2015. He handed the mantle to NRL colleagues Corey Norman and Tim Simona, before Ben Barba won in 2019. Karmichael Hunt claimed the prize in 2018, but he played NRL and Super Rugby as well as AFL, so Taylor’s victory gives the AFL its first outright medallist.

The AFL is understandably proud of its maiden victory, but may have to temper celebrations for 2021. The first five nominees for the 2021 award are all NRL players, and they will be very hard to beat. Jarryd Hayne, Jack de Belin, Tristan Sailor and Jamil Hopoate all face charges of violence against women, and should have their legal proceedings completed this year. Manase Fainu is also awaiting the outcome of his court case, for allegedly stabbing a man outside a church dance.

Super Rugby has one victory, courtesy of Hunt, while the A-League has never won the award, and only recorded a handful of nominations in six years.

The NRL is heavily favoured to re-establish its dominance in 2021, but a year is a long time in football, and professional footballers are capable of getting themselves into all sorts of scandals off the field. So, can the AFL win the most prestigious award in Australian sport for a second year running?

Image: NuNa