HREOC Website: Isma - Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australias

Consultations Homepage || Meeting Notes: 5 April 2003

Muslim Women's National Network of Australia

Executive Committee Members, Auburn City Library, Saturday 5 April 2003

The meeting was chaired by Mrs Aziza Abdel Halim, President of the MWNNA and facilitated by Omeima Sukkarieh, Community Liaison Officer, HREOC (notes). It was attended by14 invited participants.


1. What are your experiences of discrimination and vilification?

Has the community experienced discrimination and vilification? Who is being affected?

There is a general feeling among the group that the Muslim community, particularly women wearing the Hijab, have been and continue to be ostracised in all aspects of life. The discrimination and vilification of Muslims after 11 September 2001 left the majority of the community feeling "isolated and uncomfortable".

One of the participants likened the experiences of Muslims, particularly women to that experienced by her in South Africa during the Apartheid era. A few participants felt the experiences of discrimination became so serious that they felt that they were partaking in a "Jihad - an internal struggle" as a coping mechanism.

Many of the women in the group felt the problem had worsened after making the choice to wear the Hijab, getting stares and being looked at twice. Like the experiences after 11 September 2001, people they had worked well with or known well suddenly changed their behaviour towards them, at school / university and at work.

There is a general recognition also that people don't ask about the religion because of wanting to know more about it, but with the aim of ridiculing and embarrassing the person.

"There has always been a "bad guy" in the world and it is now the Arabs and Muslims. In Australia people don't distinguish between Arabs and Muslims. And as long as there is no protection in the law then how do we know our rights and how to use them".

A recent convert to Islam said she hadn't personally experienced discrimination but does believe that non-Muslims are not interested in meeting Muslims. She is married to a Chinese Muslim who has had his fair share of experiences of racist comments. They would much prefer to live in Darwin where everyone is not of Anglo background.

Another convert who chooses to wear the Hijab said she has suffered a great deal of discrimination, and people make the assumption that she is either Turkish or Lebanese. "People also make assumptions that I do not speak English, I am oppressed, stupid and beaten by my husband".

Like many others, she did not want to mix or meet with non-Muslims because she knew the barrage of questions would come. Her daughter has also experienced discrimination since the age of 6. Leaving her house to go to women's classes was also a battle at times.

Another participant said she is proud of being Lebanese Australian and promotes it as much as she can. She doesn't mind sharing a joke about Islam with her close friends because she knows that they have pure intentions, however it is quite bothering at most times when it comes from others.

When she lived at Wiley Park where Arabic was the main community group and language, there was never an issue, and people were always proud of being Arab. Even the language young people spoke was a mixture of Arabic and English. After moving to Miller where at that time there were few or no Arabs, she found herself living in an environment where there was a "racist Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, where their way of life was the best way".

She used to be called names in the street and at school such as "raganaught" and "towel head". But she thanks those people because they made her stronger.

Like most young people, she had resented her mother because she used to wear the Hijab. The first fight she had over racist remarks was when she got fed up with the fact that her brother was being beaten up because their mother picked them up from school Now as she is older she regrets feeling this way and educates people more about Islam in trying to break down the stereotypes, especially of marriage and the roles of men and women.

A tertiary student of Afghan background said that, like many others, she grew up with racism which left her feeling like an "outsider". This feeling stopped when she began attending Auburn Girls' High School, where most students were of Arabic or Islamic background. However, she felt it again when she decided to wear the Hijab about 4 years ago. She would be discriminated against often, especially post 11 September. This would shock her every time, however it made her stronger. It made her belief and knowledge stronger in Islam and its teachings.

The group acknowledged that the majority of people are not racist, but that this does not mean that racism against the community is not a problem.

Where is it happening?

At work

The experience of discrimination in the workplace told by the group was indirect as much as it was direct. These experiences include being asked to change or simplify their names at work, as it was felt that their names may deter customers or clients.

Employers or immediate supervisors as well as colleagues all seemed to lack education about Islam, leading to discrimination against Muslims in the workplace. One participant was asked after 11 September to take "that handkerchief off your head", by a colleague who treated her very well before then.

"During Ramadan last year I was working in a warehouse and the lady who was second in charge was very racist and aggressive towards me. Before wearing the scarf everything was all right. People didn't look at me sadly. After Ramadan finished, I took [the Hijab] off".

"I have very recently converted to Islam and have told a couple of people at work. I do not wear the Hijab but did so as part of National Headscarf Day. On that day I was asked if I had a bazooka under my scarf by a colleague." She believes that it will be a long time before she does wear the Hijab.

At school, university

The group expressed concerns that students at primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions, both in and out of the classroom, experience racism, mostly indirectly. There are also concerns that the impacts of these incidents appear to have gone unnoticed in classrooms.

"Young people, even kids have turned against the system because they have been left feeling alienated and scared. Experiences in schools have particularly alienated them."

The group tells that people, especially young people, are under a great deal of pressure, particularly at school and the workplace to not comply with religious beliefs but to "be more Australian".

The problem is widespread whereby comments are thrown around the room as part of addressing the subject / issue being studied at the time, by tutors/lecturers and other students, although most questions are asked by people their age. Common attacks in the tutorials against Muslims also include implications that "Islam promotes laziness, polygamy and has no respect for females". Another example included a Chemistry teacher at a university tutorial discussing the capability of terrorists to build weapons, bombs, etc, naming the terrorists and their religion.

F, a tertiary teacher who has been in Australia more than 25 years, said she had never experienced discrimination until a couple of years ago, when she started teaching. During F's orientation she noticed that her name had been misspelt and asked for a correction. However, her immediate supervisor said "that's how I've spelt it and I want you to use the same spelling" and "haven't you ever thought of anglicising your surname?" Subsequently F heard her supervisor make derogatory remarks about Iranians and Indians. She also treated F rudely and, when F raised her concerns she was transferred. However, she refused the transfer. Eventually she was not offered any further positions.

In shopping centres, banks, government offices etc

A student at Macquarie University, who started wearing the Hijab only 6 months ago has since had a few experiences of discrimination and harassment, including being verbally attacked and taunted by about 100 people at a shopping centre, being told to "go back to your country". The group believes that this is not an isolated incident but a common occurrence.

At home

After the Gulf Crisis one participant was abused and insulted by a group of Anglo garbage collectors. She contacted the Local Council and had them transferred elsewhere as she feared for her safety considering they knew where she lived.

In the street or public transport

Many Muslim women are still fearful of catching public transport and even of travelling in their own cars. Women are too nervous to go out, particularly in taxis and on public transport. Many parents do not allow their daughters to go anywhere. Young women have become even more isolated for this reason.

Many of the women have had verbal attacks from passing males whilst they have been driving, being called "terrorists", among other things.

Attacks whilst driving were of serious concern. For example, one woman reported that, when she was stopped at traffic lights behind another car, the other driver would not move when the light turned green. When she overtook him both driver and passenger yelled abuse, i.e. "you leb, go back to your country".

In the media

There are grave concerns in the community that the media has played a very negative role in its portrayal of the Muslim community. "This impacts on how people living in the same neighbourhood perceive you."

Other

Medical Centre - One of the women was waiting to see a doctor with her husband and when her husband's name 'Mohamad' was called, everyone looked up in fear and anxiety.

Recreational facilities - There has also been a significant increase in attacks against Muslim women at women-only pools, eg. because of what they wear in and out of the pool.

Internet - Most people who do have access to the internet experience discrimination on a daily basis through emails and internet sites.

2. What is being done to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination?

A volunteer tour guide at the Auburn Mosque told how the position has enabled her to take on any questions. The tours have been welcomed and there has been a very positive response, especially when the mosque had an Open Day. This has been one of the most effective ways of communicating to the public a positive message, especially for school students. It is also effective for appropriate representatives from the Islamic community to be invited to schools for workshops not just for teachers but also for students.

Government strategies and projects

There is a general sense that there has been too much preaching to the converted and that existing government initiatives have not been useful, rather that community initiatives need to take place.

3. What more could be done to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination?

Media

  • Take the anti-terrorist commercial off the air. It isolates Muslim women in scarfs and Aborigines in squares, as if singling them out even though their words don't indicate this.

  • Establishment of contracts [between the journalist and the interviewee] whereby media cannot distort what a person has said and then report this distorted comment.

Schools / other educational institutions

  • Principals of schools and multicultural liaison officers in government departments and the private sector are not doing enough. Rather than expelling students from school, principals and others should use the alternative dispute resolution style of dealing with racist incidents, i.e. discuss the racism and the incident openly.

  • Implement multicultural education in the school curriculum, with approved material from various Muslim communities/Islamic bodies. E.g. prevent school showing inappropriate and misguided movies such as "Not without my daughter" in religious and other classes.

  • Need for implementation of cross-cultural training in every course at university or school and in all sectors of the workplace, including corporate bodies taking this seriously. People conducting the training should be people who know what they are doing and have the adequate knowledge base also.

  • The focus of strategies needs to be on prevention rather than intervention, therefore the importance of educating children in schools as a preventative measure.

  • Parents' attitudes need to be changed so there is a need for education strategies through schools to target parents, as they teach their children at home. P&C meetings can be a good way of doing this and some have touched on this issue but more parents should be encouraged to attend these, especially those of Arabic background.

Isma Objectives

The meeting proposed the following strategies for achieving the six objectives identified by Isma.

Promoting positive public awareness

  • Advertise in local, ethnic and mainstream newspapers about positive aspects of Islam and Arabs.
  • Encourage the organisation of more Mosque Open Days, as this is a strategy which appears to attract many people already.
  • Prominent personalities should stand up publicly on this issue, getting the government and others to portray Islam positively.

Challenging stereotypes

  • Provide funding for short films about stereotypes, etc to address the issue as films are very effective, especially among young people.

Strengthening relationships between communities

  • The community is obligated to educate the wider community about Islam, on a small scale as well as large scale. This would lead Anglo Saxons to be embarrassed about how other Australians treat people, especially other Australians. And people are becoming like this now.

Improving public safety

  • There is a need for security guards and shopping centre management to be more educated and take appropriate action where necessary.

Informing communities about their rights

  • Providing funding for short films (made by young people for young people) about 'their rights' to address the issue.

  • There is a general belief that the Muslim community shouldn't be apologetic but be educated enough to respond about their religion and the law.

Ensuring complaints are taken seriously

  • Bodies such as HREOC and the ADB need to be proactive in informing organisations across all sectors of the importance of the existing law, i.e human rights, access and equity, EEO, etc and ensure that all workers are adequately trained.
  • Federal and state laws need to be amended to include religious vilification of Muslims, in order for complaints and the issue to be taken seriously by the Arabic, Islamic and wider community.

4. Other issues and suggestions

  • If you focus on a training or meeting and have Islamic in the title, people won't attend. There needs to be a more alluring, attractive title.

  • Events focusing on this issue should be done more tactfully, eg. using food and music.