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ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Let Muslim women speak for themselves

For most young Australian Muslim women who wear the hijab, a train ride is never simply a means of transport to university or work. It is often a place where politics, prejudice and human curiosity converge.

“Does the Koran promote the beating of women?” I’ve been asked.

“Are you always wearing your hijab?”

“I’ll bet you’re very traditional, aren’t you?”

“Are you getting an arranged marriage?”

And my favourite comment: “Girls like you need respect.”

Why girls like me? Was there something about me that screamed out for sympathy? Apparently, yes. The material I weave around my hair ever morning is not an icon of defiance as has been suggested in the past, nor is it a fashion statement. The hijab shapes my identity but does not define my personality.

To many Australians, my hijab represents patriarchal oppression, conservative traditionalism as well as religious dissent.

For decades, indeed since colonialism, representations of veiled Muslim women have permeated western feminist, racial, gendered, orientalist and religious discourses. These discourses shape non-Muslim perspectives of the hijab and impact on the relations between women who bear this religious symbol and people who know little about its significance.

On a more local level, Australian Muslim women who wear the hijab have habitually been thrust in as a side dish to political and social debates on multiculturalism, immigration, terrorism, feminism, “race” and “Australian values”.

What has emerged as a result of this fascination with the hijab is a struggle for young Muslim women’s identities and beliefs. At the same time young Aussie Muslim women enjoy the challenge of breaking down years of Orientalist ideas about the hijab.

It’s always a delight to see people’s faces change when they realise the hijab does not restrict you from articulating and debating in proper English. It’s disappointing when after speaking to people for 30 minutes, their views remain set in concrete.

This is no sob story asking for sympathy; rather it is an insight into the everyday life of women who wear the hijab. Often, these women are educated, active in the community, pursuing careers as well as being the head of a family. Yet, increasingly women who wear the hijab are being accused of defying Australian values as well as supporting a religion that apparently condones oppression.

Indeed, Australian views about Islam clearly reflect the ideas of Islam as oppressive to women. Evidence of this surfaced in a 2003 survey about Australian knowledge of Islam. More than 38 per cent of the people surveyed attributed Islam, with “misogynist” views, as well as being “fundamentalist” and “intolerant”.

Yes, we cannot deny Muslim women in various parts of the world are being oppressed however, we have to make distinctions between those who are correctly practicing Islam and those who purport to follow and exploit Islam for political or other agendas: fundamentalists or extremists of any kind.

It is not often said, but once, Islam was believed to be a religion of moderation and peace. It was seen as a religion which could complement different environments and contexts. For the past 40 years or so, Islam has been equated mostly with violence, hatred, a tribal mentality, terrorism and female oppression. Unfortunately many Muslims, in particular Muslim women, share the blame for actions they abhor and completely oppose: actions like the killing of innocent people, the preaching of violence and the tyrannical regimes of many “Islamic” countries.

Islamism, a political form of Islam that defines groups like al-Qaida is seen to be wiping out all other elements of Islam. Islamism is increasingly become a threat to world peace and stability. Islamism is categorising all Muslims as freedom-hating, violent and extremist.

But it is Muslim women who wear the hijab that are being sought to answer these difficult claims. Of course, most Muslims are being asked the same questions but wearing the hijab makes you more susceptible to confronting questions, heated debates and sometimes outright racism in public spaces.

The problem Australian Muslim women currently face is the marginalisation and dismissal of their voices from political and social discourse. Muslim women are often the subject of national and global debates about patriotic nationalism, identity and women’s rights yet, the discussion ends there. Despite the fact that Muslim women have strong views on our current political and social climate, they are still being talked about rather than understood or excluded from the discourses.

Politicians like Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Panopoulos; media commentators like Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan; The Australian columnist, Janet Albrechtsen -all purport to speak for and champion Muslim women’s “plight” in their debates but exclude them from participating.

Similarly, many Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab purport to speak for those women that do, although this can sometimes be positive, often this further alienates the voices of those Muslim women who wear the hijab. Furthermore, we have some Muslim men who attempt to speak on Muslim women’s behalf which is also generally detrimental as it implies that Muslim women cannot speak for themselves.

As long as there are public figures who feel they have a right to speak for women who wear the hijab but don’t indeed experience it themselves, this undermines the right of Muslim women who wear the veil to speak up and represent their own voices.

As Christina Ho, Social Inquiry lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney said in a paper on Muslim women late last year: “Ultimately … ‘colonial feminist’ discourses jeopardise Muslim women’s ability to speak out about social problems in their own communities …”

When non-Muslim Australians approach Australian Muslim women who wear the headscarf on trains, in the streets, at university and in various other public spaces, this is a positive step towards breaking down misconceptions on all sides of the spectrum. It is also a means by which Muslim women articulate their views and bring new light to the complexities of Islam and Muslims in the Australian context.

These short but beneficial conversations reaffirm the idea that Muslim women have their own voice and are more than capable of representing themselves. And it is in this open interaction where Muslim women debunk the many myths associated with them by mainstream Australian society. These conversations are also a microcosm of the current debates around Islam’s ability to integrate in "Western" countries and adopt "Western" values.

Rayann Bekdache is a journalism student from the University of Technology Sydney.

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