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‘Australian Muslim Women: participating in positive social change’: Omeima Sukkarieh (2007)

Race Race Discrimination

‘Australian Muslim Women: participating in positive social change’

Omeima Sukkarieh
Acting Senior Policy Research Officer

Muslim Women’s Welfare of Australia (MWWA)
‘Understanding Muslim Women’ Forum
Westella Lounge Lidcombe, Sydney

8 March 2007


I would like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the GANDANGARA People of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we stand today.

I would also like to especially thank the Muslim Women’s’ Welfare of Australia, especially Faten Dana, and the Community Relations Commission for giving me the opportunity to be here today.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) aims to foster greater understanding and protection of human rights in Australia and to address the human rights concerns of a broad range of individuals and groups. The Commission’s responsibilities include education and public awareness, handling of discrimination and human rights complaints, human rights compliance and policy and legislative development.

One of the key roles of the Race Discrimination Commissioner is to develop, administer and manage programs and activities to combat racism and promote equality for all Australians, regardless of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin.  For this reason, in 2003 HREOC commenced a project called Isma: Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians. During this project HREOC consulted with over 1,400 Arab and Muslim Australians around Australia.  Participants described their experiences of race and religious discrimination and vilification since the September 11 and Bali bombings.

The Isma Report found that women, in particular Muslim women wearing the hijab, usually bear the brunt of racial and religious discrimination experienced by Arab and Muslim Australians. The Report also found that most incidents raised in the consultations were not reported to police or other government authorities or even services, due to fear of victimisation; lack of trust in authority; lack of knowledge about the law and complaints processes; the perceived difficulty in making a complaint and the perception that outcomes were unsatisfactory.

We can understand therefore why in Australia today it is probably the most complicated time to define oneself as a Muslim woman. Islam and especially women in Islam, have been tremendously misunderstood, and in some cases attacked, particularly since September 11, 2001.

We listened to stories of women, mostly Muslim women, anxious to walk their children to school in fear of being spat on, abused or ridiculed, people who felt they had been refused employment because their name was Mohammed, their resume said they spoke Arabic or because they were wearing the hijab, young men and women who felt that they were being targeted by police, and to the stories of women and girls who said they had been abused, had objects thrown at them from moving cars, sometimes causing injury. We listened to people sick of having to justify their religion or cultural background; upset by what they felt was a wave of hatred from talkback radio and a barrage of television images. We listened to the stories of seventh generation Australians being told to go back to their own country. Many Australians simply shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs. We were told by many participants that the impacts of such inaction from bystanders were more so than the impact of the act of discrimination or abuse itself. Scared, isolated, increasingly distrustful of authority, suicidal, not feeling welcome, alienated and disheartened were only some of the things that participants expressed feeling.

Events since the Isma Report, including the London bombings in July 2005, have only increased the need to address problems of discrimination and vilification against Muslim women, and seek ways of promoting common goals of harmony and understanding.

To address some of these issues and concerns the Commission conducted the Living Spirit Forum which formed part of the Muslim Women’s Project in 2006 with the main aim of engaging Australian Muslim and non-Muslim women in a dialogue about human rights and responsibilities.

The forum, entitled ‘Living Spirit’Muslim Women and Human Rights Forum – the right to participate in social change, was a one-day interactive event held in Victoria late last year. It was developed and conducted by HREOC in partnership with the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria (IWWCV), thus enabling greater participation in the project from Victorian Muslim women.

The forum program was designed around the key issues which emerged from the key stakeholder meetings and consultations conducted throughout the year. Many of these issues echoed those identified in the Isma Project, and many other sources. 

The forum was open to all women and was attended by over 140 Muslim and non-Muslim women from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. Participants were diverse in age, culture, religion, experiences and attitudes.

The forum was designed to address the identified issues through workshops, in particular focusing on solutions and strategies. The forum was being planned and developed at a time when many Muslim women, particularly women of Arabic speaking background, were coping with the realities of the war on Lebanon and its impact on many of their families. The Commission was informed that the mood in the Australian Arab and Muslim communities was one of tragic loss and despair. With this in mind, Living Spirit took a two-fold approach. The forum was designed to be interactive and informative and was firstly a celebration of the human and living spirit of women, especially in difficult times. Secondly, it addressed the importance of empowering women to actively participate in positive social change to help overcome feelings of despair, disempowerment and victimisation. With ‘active participation in social change’ as the main theme, the forum suggested pathways forward for service providers, anti-discrimination agencies, community organisations, individuals and the broader community in general.

There are many barriers to active participation in any change or service.  These were clearly identified in the Living Spirit Forum. The current debate around multiculturalism and social integration suggests that Muslim people are the ‘other’ and must change before they can be part of the broader society. Thus the debate is causing many Muslim Australians to feel marginalised and isolated. 

The biggest impact on the Muslim and Arab community of racism is fear and distrust.  What HREOC sought to do in the Isma  Report and with Living Spirit was to develop strategies to break the cycle of such fear which leads to prejudice which in turn leads to violence, then more fear, more prejudice and of course more violence. Allowed to run unimpeded, this cycle could destroy the foundations of many communities and eventually the society as a whole. One way of breaking this cycle is to have more opportunities for dialogue with Muslim women. Prejudice thrives on ignorance, and with information to counter negative stereotypes and prejudice there is no excuse.

People need to feel their participation is valued. Most people want to get involved but think there is no point. People need to feel like it’s worth it and that the outcome will be positive. It is about building the capacity and empowering Muslim women, and indeed all women, to participate in making change. The experiences of discrimination and its impacts for example can prevent and limit movement and active participation in events and services. Young people during the Living Spirit Forum for example reported that what they see their parents go through has an impact on the involvement of young people in broader community activities as they can easily become hateful feeling like there is no point in getting involved in anything in the ‘broader’ community.

There is so much that we can do. Ensuring Muslim women know about their rights is one step but we can only do that by informing ourselves. They need to know that they have a right to not be discriminated against in employment, when buying a house or renting, in any kind of education such as school or university, when buying or hiring something such as a car, or when seeking help from government departments, lawyers, doctors, or even when using restaurants, nightclubs and so on. They also have a right also not to be discriminated against when accessing public places such as the beach, park, library, mosques or public transport.

People need to know that it’s o.k. to feel stressed, angry, alienated, and fearful. It is o.k. to also feel like you have lost a bit of confidence in yourself and to lose trust in authority and the very people you feel should be there to help protect your rights. It is also o.k. to feel tired and frustrated by the constant pressure to explain your ethnic or religious identity or justify your choice of dress or to have to change your name just to get a job. These are things we at the HREOC have been hearing from young Australian Muslims and Muslim women all the time. But how can we stop it? We can start by imagining what it is like to be in their shoes.

Acknowledging the barriers to such social and civic participation and inclusion of individuals as well as organisations is therefore crucial. Respecting the struggle of Australian Muslim women for an accurate representation and respect of their diversity and recognising and respecting the contributions Muslim women make in Australia as leaders, human rights activists, academics, entrepreneurs, politicians, journalists, social workers, teachers, doctors, students, lawyers, policy makers and home makers who are often at the front line fighting for women's rights often without even knowing, is also crucial. 

The power of civil society must never be forgotten. Muslim Australians, like all Australians can co-exist alongside each other in one Australia. It was, and still is, considered essential that political and community leaders at all levels encourage Australians to uphold the principles of multiculturalism including respect for the right of all Australians to express their own culture and beliefs and responsibility to support the basic structures and principles of Australian society that guarantee freedom and equality for all. This type of leadership is crucial to overcoming the sense of alienation and isolation identified by so many Arab and Muslim Australians.

Integration should be seen as a two way process in which Muslim and non-Muslim Australians learn to value cultural diversity and promote active participation. This is crucial to making everyone feel part of one society. Integration is about belonging but is also about the possibility of being a Muslim as well as an Australian in society without dissolving in it.


So what else is crucial? What other strategies can be employed? Some suggestions include:

  • Develop policy and procedures within workplaces on community participation and integration and ensure that community participation is embedded and written within existing policies and procedures. Programs and services also need to be provided in a way that facilitates the integration and participation. Projects need to be inclusive.

  • Translated information is never enough to address accessibility. Provision of transport and childcare also need to be considered.

  • Think outside the square. Try to make the event/activity innovative, interesting, creative, interactive and informative as the Living Spirit Forum was described by a participant.

  • Make the greatest possible use of community facilities and services already available to the community. For example think about when prayer times are or what festivals are taking place and factor them in the planning.

  • Engage people and representatives who are also culturally competent as well as having staff who is representative of the cultural and religious diversity of the community it services.  Keep in mind however that just because they’re Muslims or Arab it does not mean they’re the best ones for the position. They must have diplomacy and excellent grassroots experience working with communities and a good history of involvement with the community.

  • Find out what some good examples are of tools/resources that exist that do encourage community engagement and participation and use or adapt them to suit your needs and objectives.

  • Need for education about rights and responsibilities as well as how to exercise these rights and responsibilities through active community participation for staff and community.

  • Recognise that community services are agents of social change where participation is valued and recognised and encouraged, but organisations need to be supported through innovative means. All networks and NGOs working with women have a role to play here. Networks and organisations representing Muslim women who we know are active and dedicated are often lacking in human and financial resources and the Commission was told that these networks need to be strengthened and supported. They need to ensure that they themselves reflect the full diversity of Muslim women in Australia today.

  • In order for someone to want to participate and feel included, they need to be involved in decision-making processes of the development of institutions, for example, through advisory groups. Giving people the opportunity to represent their own views by having a Muslim women or young person on your advisory board, etc. This does not have to be a formal process.

  • Have good referral information i.e. know who is out there that can assist the service or the client/community in this area.

  • Educating other service providers by actively engaging in inter-agency groups and networks

  • Getting to know your community and establishing trust and credibility is vital. Do this through community organisations and key people in the community. This also includes attending, participating in and supporting events. Be aware and take note of the important issues that arise within the communities.

We know that people here in Australia and indeed around the world often have a general image of the oppressed Muslim woman deprived of her rights. This perception focuses first and foremost on Muslim women as passive victims of human rights violations, not as independent women working to shape their lives and their societies. But we also know that that reflects neither the reality nor the self-perception of the women concerned. We must provide information and hold forums such as these as an avenue to aspire to break out of the limitations set for us and by us.

We need to continue to eliminate the stereotypes which after September 11, 2001 in particular have been resurrected, the clichés which have resurfaced and the prejudices which have been reinforced. The most important lesson for us to learn is that women everywhere have been imprisoned by prejudice and cruelty and this prejudice goes beyond simple racial or national boundaries and we are not powerless against them.

An 84 year old Isma consultation participant in Queensland who was mute reminds me everyday of the power we all hold. Her voice was silent but her eyes told me that even the smallest steps can be taken every day of our lives to eliminate prejudice and to realise equality, but it requires a determined effort, an open heart and a selfless attitude.

Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to replace fear with trust, suspicion with dialogue, ignorance with knowledge and understanding. We need to ask ourselves how Muslim women and girls are treated in Australia. How can we help empower them to participate in positive social change? What barriers and obstacles do they face? How can these best be overcome? And most importantly how can we overcome them together? And on international women’s day, today this is a great start.

Thank you.