“I feel like even if I have a big problem and I want to give up, I won’t give up,” Norfarahana Aziz replied when asked whether playing rugby union made her feel ‘unstoppable’.
“I try to overcome the problem and to solve the problem with the help of my rugby team-mates, my manager and my coaches.”
Despite a meteoric rise that saw Ana picked for the Malaysian national women’s team just two months after switching her focus from the martial art of Silat Olahraga, there have been a number of barriers to smash through.
The first, and most obvious, was one of geography. Having been introduced to the game by her Silat coach, who also provided her with her early kit, Ana was required to leave home.
Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, is an eight to 10-hour bus ride from the village in which she grew up but offered the opportunity to continue her education while learning about her new passion.
It was the first time that she had ever ventured to the city and encountered different cultures, traditions and dialects.
“I needed to move far away from my family for a long time and I needed to adapt to my new environment in the city,” Ana said.
“I had to learn how to be independent.
“The city is a lot different. In the village we don’t know anything about rugby. My village also do not know that women play rugby!
“Then I moved to Kuala Lumpur and I know a lot of friends from many races, I had to learn their language and their slang.
“Most of them are from Sabah and speak with their slang. So, I’d be like ‘Oh, what are they saying?’ I didn’t understand. I had never been with a group of players. Then after a month I could understand them.”
Ana found it particularly hard to leave her family, especially as her mother had died only two years before. “It’s very tough because I was never far from my family for a long time,” she explained.
However, her father was supportive of her decision and before she left for the capital asked of her only that she took care of herself and did not do anything that he would not.
“My father says ‘If you did not play rugby, you would not get the chances you get now’,” she said. “My father is super proud of me.”
Ana joined Cobra Venom – a women’s team set up in 2015 – when she made it to Kuala Lumpur and although she initially found it difficult to adapt to her new surroundings while juggling her studies and rugby, success on the pitch helped her settle.
In her first tournament playing for her new club she was spotted by national team selectors and in April 2016 she travelled to Singapore to take part in the South East Asia Sevens Championship.
In doing so she also became the first woman to play for Malaysia while wearing a hijab.
“For my first national team training I was the only one who was wearing a hijab and it was very much, ‘Oh my god, I’m the only one’,” Ana said.
“So, I needed to maintain this because I’m the only one.”
On the reaction of opposition players, she added: “People were like ‘Can you play rugby with that hijab?’ ‘Can you play rugby with your small size?’
“And then I overcome it with wearing the headgear. So, at first when I played rugby there were not so many girls who were wearing a hijab playing rugby.
“But today there’s a lot of girls in Malaysia who are wearing a hijab to play rugby.”
Through her exploits for Cobra Venom and the Malaysian national team, Ana was able to help convince other Muslim women and girls that they could play rugby too.
“I’m very proud because maybe I have been the inspiration to them. When they see me play rugby with a hijab then it gives them the courage, the bravery, to play rugby,” she said.
“Sometimes I feel like [a role model] because sometimes the girls will ask me ‘How do you play rugby with that, does it not bother you when you play?’
“Then I reply to them ‘No, it’s not a problem – really, it’s not a problem’.
“You can play rugby with wearing a hijab and this, there is a solution by wearing a scrum cap.”
Ana’s elevation to the national team did come at a cost, though, as it meant that she was required to extend her studies in Kuala Lumpur in order to continue training with her new team-mates.
However, she was unable to get another student loan and therefore faced the possibility of having to return home until her club coach at Cobra Venom organised a fundraising drive that provided the security she needed to stay.
“My scholarship had been stopped for that semester because I had got it before,” Ana explained.
“So, I felt very sad because I did not know how I was going to pay fees, how I was going to get money to continue my studies.
“Then my manager did some fundraising for me and he gave me the money to continue my studies.
“I was very, very grateful for that and I was very grateful for knowing the people who I didn’t expect to help me like that.
Challenges to overcome
“What I have accepted, what they have given to me has made me want to be a more successful student and more motivated in rugby.”
Rugby has given Ana opportunities she could not have dreamed of growing up; the indescribable feeling of playing for Malaysia and the opportunity to travel Asia. But she is not done yet.
“In Malaysia, rugby is like not popular sport, so we have a lack of support from society,” she said.
“So, that is like a barrier for us because if people do not know about rugby then it’s hard to get the sponsors.
“One more barrier in Malaysia, I think, is there are not so many tournaments because there are not so many girls [playing].
“So, we have to get the exposure and the experience, so my managers have to find the tournaments overseas and we have to go there to get the experience and exposure.”
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