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HREOC Website: Isma - Listen

'Reflections through the mirror of diversity - the Isma- project and beyond'


Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria Launch of Poster:

Omeima Sukkarieh
Community Liaison Officer
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Melbourne 22 July 2004

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation, the traditional owners and custodians of the land where we meet today.

I would also like to especially thank the Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria for giving me the opportunity to be standing here today.

So, "Are we equal in your eyes?"

While they share a common religion, Australian Muslims are a culturally and linguistically diverse group. Just over one-quarter of a million Muslims (281,578) live in Australia and according to the 2001 Census, there are approximately 92, 000 Muslims living in Victoria alone. While there is a common misconception that all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are Arab, less than 20% of Australian Muslims were born in Middle Eastern or Arab countries.

Islam covers many lands with many diverse cultures. From the borders of the Arabian Gulf to the coasts of Africa, from Bosnia to Indonesia, large groups of people practice Islam. Each nation with its own distinct culture; one cannot bring all these cultures, political systems, national heritage, belief systems, geographical locations, historical backgrounds, and the peoples who embody them under one category or see them as one system. No two nations or cultures are alike.
The fundamentals of equality and diversity are embedded in Islam. One of the verses of the Quran that I have been particularly guided by throughout my life, is, "O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)." Another reads, "And their Lord has accepted (their prayers) and answered them (saying): 'Never will I cause to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female; you are members, one of another..."

These verses have taught me that as Muslim women, we are acknowledged as an independent personality, in possession of human qualities and worthy of spiritual aspirations. Our human nature is neither inferior to, nor deviant from that of man. We are all members of one another. These verses have taught me that we must respect all people, all creations. Islam has also taught me that we are all equal in bearing personal and common responsibilities and in receiving rewards.

People are not created identical but they are created equals and as a proud Australian Muslim woman I stand before you today and I tell you that to some people this poster is confronting. To me this poster highlights the struggle of Australian Muslim women for an accurate representation and respect of their diversity. It highlights the current condition that Australian Muslim women face. It also highlights the recognition of substantive equality rather than formal equality, equality among people and society at large not just the equality in law; the enjoyment of life and the freedom of being just as we are. This poster is an overdue recognition by all Australians of me, as an Australian Lebanese Muslim woman. It provides recognition and respect to all the Muslim women in this room and of our differences and similarities. It recognises and respects the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters in this room and 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. It provides recognition and respect to the committed and motivated women from all walks of life in this room and outside this room who are often at the front line fighting for women's rights.

In Australia today it is probably the most complicated time to define ourselves as Muslim women. Islam has been tremendously misunderstood, and in some cases attacked, particularly since September 11, 2001.

In March 2003, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched the Isma- project in response to increasing concerns expressed by Arab and Muslim organisations about the rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in Australia. These concerns were expressed against the backdrop of the September 11 2001 attacks in New York and the Bali bombings of October 2002, as well as national and local events such as the growing numbers of asylum seekers from the Middle-East and Muslim countries and the trial, conviction and sentencing of gang rapists in Sydney in 2001-2002.

With our gratitude, Joumanah El Matrah, on behalf of the Islamic Welfare Council of Victoria, with other experts and representatives was a member of the Isma- project reference group who played a crucial role in the project providing the Commission with advice and feedback on the project.

As many of you know, Isma- means 'listen' in Arabic and the aim of the project was to listen to Arab and Muslim Australians to better understand the nature and impact of the prejudice that many people said they were experiencing. Another aim was to try and understand and account for the discrepancy between what we had heard about peoples' experiences and formal complaint numbers which did not increase in any substantial way. The Commission was also interested in finding out what was currently being done to address prejudice towards Arab and Muslim Australians, as well as what else Arab and Muslim Australians thought should be done in this area.

One of my responsibilities as Community Liaison Officer was to consult nationally with Arab and Muslim Australians, where consultations involved group discussions on the questions: Have you (or the community group you represent) experienced discrimination and vilification? If so, what are those experiences? What is being done to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination? What more could be done to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination?

We travelled across the country between April and November 2003 and conducted 69 consultations and heard from over 1,400 people. 20 of those consultations were conducted in Melbourne and Shepparton, and 17 were specifically with women's groups. The most complex and difficult aspect of planning the consultations was to capture opinions that reflected the broad ethnic and religious diversity of Arab and Muslim Australians, including Arabs of diverse religious backgrounds and Muslims of diverse ethnic backgrounds and ancestries. So while most consultations were conducted in English, several were entirely in Arabic. Eritrean, Dari, Farsi, Pashtu, Bosnian, Bahasa Indonesia and Albanian interpreters were also used in consultations. With permission from the consultation participants', where granted, we taped each consultation and with our notes, summaries of these consultations have been published on the Commission's website.

The second component of the project was empirical and qualitative research conducted by the researchers at the University of Western Sydney using questionnaires and follow-up interviews to learn more about Arab and Muslim Australians' responses to racism and abuse and their experiences and understanding of complaints processes. Over 1,400 self-complete questionnaires were distributed in New South Wales and Victoria last year and 25 multiple-choice and open-ended questions were asked about people's experiences and responses to racism, abuse and violence.

An audit of strategies and initiatives that sought to address anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice, discrimination and vilification formed the third component to the project where the Commission contacted over 100 local, state and federal government agencies and community groups and had over 50 meetings with representatives from these organisations to provide an overview of existing strategies and identify gaps.

What resulted was a summary report of the consultations with a list of recommendations, a research paper authored by the researchers titled 'Living with Racism' and a strategies document outlining over 100 projects and initiatives that have been undertaken since September 11 to address anti-Arab or anti-Muslim prejudice. The Commission also produced an audio CD in English and Arabic which describes the Isma- project and includes comments from the community consultations about the experiences and issues that participants raised. Copies of all of these are available on the Commission's website and for you to take with you today.

The summary report of the Isma- project was launched in Sydney on 16 June 2004, in Melbourne and Shepparton on the 22 June and subsequently in other states and territories.

So, what did we hear? What the Commission heard throughout the Isma- project is that a significant number of Arab and Muslim Australians are feeling fearful, isolated and vulnerable. We have been told that prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians has happened and continues to happen. It takes place on the street, in shopping centres, in the media, in schools, on public transport, in government and non-government services, at airports, hospitals and so on.

One of the things we heard was that participants felt that those most at risk were readily identifiable as Arab or Muslim because of their dress, physical appearance or name, particularly Muslim women who wear the hijab. 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. Listened to the stories of 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. We listened to the stories of 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, not feeling welcome, alienated and disheartened were only some of things that participants expressed feeling.

However, despite many negative experiences, Arab and Muslim Australians also said they had received support and help from non-Arabs and non-Muslims in the community and that it had given them an opportunity to answer questions about their cultural background and their religion.

While much has been done by community and government organisations, participants in the Isma- project identified a number of key areas for improvement and future action. These included improving legal protections; promoting positive public awareness through education; addressing stereotypes and misinformation in public debate; ensuring community safety through law enforcement; encouraging effective community action and fostering public support and solidarity with Arab and Muslim Australians. The Commission developed more specific recommendations from these broad areas following investigation of the kinds of initiatives which were already in place at a local, state and federal level across Australia.

The Commission felt that ensuring that both Arab and Muslim Australians have adequate legal protection from discrimination and vilification and knowledge of and access to complaints processes is vital. Therefore a number of the recommendations made in the summary report aim to enable and encourage Arab and Muslim Australians to report incidents of discrimination and vilification. Recommendations which have been made include providing federal legal protection against discrimination or vilification because of religion. Currently, there is no federal law which makes discrimination or vilification on the basis of religion unlawful and only piecemeal coverage of religious discrimination and vilification across the states and territories. A federal law would ensure there is a national 'safety net' protecting everyone around the country from religious discrimination and vilification.

Other recommendations are aimed at addressing the longer-term prejudices that lead to discrimination and vilification. Countering anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice through education programs that promote positive awareness of cultural and religious diversity among Australians at a school and public education level, challenging negative stereotyping by encouraging better communication between government, non-government and media organisations and Arab and Muslim communities and assisting communities to challenge negative stereotyping, supporting and strengthening Arab and Muslim community organisations to develop and participate in projects which address discrimination and vilification and strong and effective leadership at a local, state, federal and at a community level were all seen as essential. Government institutions, media, politicians, service providers and Arab and Muslim community organisations and individuals need to work together to eliminate prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians.

For many, the path to equality in Australia was felt to be fast becoming the road less travelled, however in times such as these, I believe we must all see education as a priority. It certainly is for the Commission and it was for the community. Again we all have a responsibility.

One of the quotes that always comes to my mind when the topic of diversity and education comes up is one said by a young Muslim woman in one of the Brisbane consultations. I quote: "I think we also need to be very diverse about how we promote Islam to the mainstream community too. We need to present Muslim women as 'Muhajabine' [Veiled], not wearing the hijab, Anglo, African, Asian, Indian, non-Arab, different styles of dress, different styles of adornment, different styles of behaviour and practice and tradition ... We need to encourage respect for diversity in the Islamic community and this will lead to greater solidarity."

What I see in this poster are vibrant portraits of successful Muslim women. These women and the women I have met on my professional and personal journey are evidence of the true meaning of courage, determination and understanding, and provide me encouragement and inspiration. I believe that this poster, by presenting the true face of the Australian and Muslim community, will help to overcome prejudice and misunderstanding. We must use it as an avenue to aspire to break out of the limitations set for us and by us.

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 that reflects neither the reality nor the self-perception of the women concerned.

We must use this poster to change our perspective, broaden our field of vision and use it as a tool to engage in dialogue with Muslim women; listen to what Muslim women have to say about these questions, what problems they encounter and what strength they can draw from their faith and from their Islamic identity, particularly when it comes to empowering women. Such dialogue of mutual respect and understanding can only break down unfounded fears, prejudices and the walls of defence on both sides. We have to stop building walls, we need to get to know one another so that we can better understand each other and put an end to misperceptions in order to be successful in the fight for women's rights and real equality.

The launch of this poster is a launch of the true representation of Australian Muslim women into the Australian public sphere; a recognition of their achievements and an acknowledgement of their diversity. It ensures that their role and contributions are visible to the outside world. It helps to eliminate the stereotypes which after September 11, 2001 in particular have been resurrected, the cliches which have resurfaced and the prejudices which have been reinforced. The most important lesson for us to learn however is that women everywhere have been imprisoned by prejudice and cruelty and this prejudice goes beyond simple racial or national boundaries but we are not powerless against them.

All networks and NGOs representing women have a role to play here. Muslim women who have attended consultations have made many suggestions for change. 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.

There are so many successful projects and networks in Melbourne alone which carry the message of the importance of embracing diversity and equality and whose aim is to empower women; the SILC project run by the Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria, the 'Given the Chance Program' run by the Ecumenical Migration Centre, the 'Anti-Racism Action Band' - Youth leadership and capacity training project run by the Victorian Arabic Social Services are just a few.

At one of the Isma consultations I met a mute, humble 84 year old Muslim woman whose body may have been wilted by life's experiences, but whose spirit, which illuminated a passion and conviction in her silent voice, left me with tear-drenched eyes. It is women like herself who we must gain strength and knowledge from. This beautiful Muslim woman illustrated the importance of commitment of each individual to the principle of justice. 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 and I extend my congratulations on behalf of the Commission for the people who made this poster possible for their determined effort, their open hearts and selfless attitudes.

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. What barriers and obstacles do they face? How can these best be overcome? And most importantly "Are they equal in our eyes?"

Thank you.

29 October 2004