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We are the Exotic Other, See Beyond the Veil

Georgia Behrens speaks to Muslim women about their experiences on campus.

Oweek

Fatema Ali speaks with none of the affected uncertainty I’m used to encountering in my peers, and informs me at the start of our interview that she spent last night having an online fight with “most of the Muslim world” about Middle Eastern politics. She’s studying a Bachelor of Science at USyd, but describes herself as “more political than anything else”, with a taste for debate and conflicts of ideas forged during her high school years as the only Muslim student at her local high school in Kandos, northwest NSW (population 1200).

Fatema is the founder of the University of Sydney Muslim Wom*n’s Collective, a group she established late last year as a space for Muslim women studying at USyd to “step back from it all and just talk to each other.”

“I wanted to get away from the institutions and see if a new space could help us work through some of the stuff we have to deal with so we can actually start solving problems,” she says.

Groups such as the Sydney University Muslim Students Association (SUMSA) and the SRC Wom*n’s Collective had been attempting to cater to these students as ‘Muslims’ and ‘women’ independently for several decades, but Fatema says she hoped to establish a forum where there would be no need for Muslim women to distinguish these identities from one another in any way. The “it all” of lived experience for a Muslim woman, she explains, is inevitably different from that of their male or non-Muslim counterparts in SUMSA and Wom*n’s Collective, and is defined to an equally great extent by a woman’s religion and her gender.

“There’s a lot to talk about,” Fatema says, reeling off sectarianism, Muslim masculinity, and controversial “sextremist” organisation FEMEN as topics that might come up in discussion.  Over the next few weeks, a variety of Muslim women speak to me about the lives they spend negotiating the intersecting tides of Islamophobia, sexism, and racism that often bear down upon them in the age of “Team Australia” and IS. Just how much the new Muslim Wom*n’s Collective will have to talk about in 2015 is already pretty staggering.

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Shortly after Islamic State executed the first of its Western captives in August last year, Muslim students at the University of Sydney began to feel themselves buffeted by the wave of Islamophobia sweeping its way across the country. SUMSA posters were ripped down around campus; Muslim students were spat on; one woman was told to take her headscarf off and hang herself with it on her way to Redfern Station. Reports of these incidents were met with stunned horror by a University community that assumed the rigours of a world-class liberal education would be enough to exorcise such blatant bigotry from among its own ranks.

The University has, to its credit, put extensive effort into ensuring that Muslim students are adequately supported on campus. SUMSA has been a fixture at USyd since 1972, and has a large and well-funded program of events throughout the year; Muslim students have their own prayer rooms, and a part-time Islamic “chaplain” available through the multifaith chaplaincy program; and the Institute for Teaching and Learning works to ensure inclusive practices in the University’s teaching and curricula. Unfortunately, these efforts have proved inadequate in eliminating Islamophobia from USyd, as Muslim students emerged in worryingly large numbers to tell of apparently daily incidences of bigotry and discrimination.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these stories were told in women’s voices. They spoke, initially, of the overt, headline-making Islamophobia described above, and of how they wanted better security on campus so they didn’t have to feel unsafe walking to class or catching a train home. But they also spoke about forms of racism that had become, by now, depressingly banal. Eternally empty seats next to them in tutorials and lecture halls; sideways glances from fellow train commuters; looks of surprise, especially from men, when they spoke up in class discussions. These things didn’t make them feel afraid so much as frustrated—frustrated to be viewed always as objects of pity and fear, and to so rarely be given an opportunity to define themselves in any other way.

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“Wearing the veil definitely shapes my entire existence,” says Mariam Bazzi, a fourth-year Education student. “With any other religion you can meet people and they’ll get to know other stuff about you first. I’m really proud to be a Muslim and to wear the veil, but it does mean that that’s the first thing that anyone knows about me.”

Mariam describes social interaction with strangers as an exercise in negotiating assumptions and breaking down misconceptions. “I feel like I have to be extra nice to everyone I meet just so they don’t think I’m crazy or something,” she says. Fatema, meanwhile, recalls her peers at high school assuming that wearing a veil made her a terrorist. “I had to literally go around and reassure everyone I wasn’t going to bomb them or anything,” she says.

Since converting to Islam at the age of eighteen, Dr Susan Carland has become a prominent figure in the Australian Muslim community, writing and researching on Muslim women’s interactions with sexism and feminism. Carland, a white Australian with convict heritage, speaks of her experiences of wearing the veil for the first time as life-changing.

“I became so acutely aware of the privilege I’d enjoyed my entire life until then. All of a sudden I couldn’t expect to be treated with respect when I walked into a shop or ordered a coffee or went through airport security. It’s not all day every day, but you do kind of expect that you’ll encounter a sense of reserve in people,” she says.

“I’ve had people tell me things along the line of ‘go back where you came from’, where they obviously assume that anyone wearing a hijab couldn’t have been born in Australia.”

Carland has also become conscious of the different expectations people have of her personality since she began wearing the veil.

“There’s this stereotype of Muslim women as someone who completely lacks agency, who’s passive and weak and submissive.”

Similar sentiments are expressed by many of the women I speak to.

“People often look really surprised when I have an opinion in class,” says a student. “I’m always like, what, do you expect me to be too afraid to talk in front of you? Or do you seriously think that I just don’t have any thoughts for myself?”

According to Dr Carland, this gendered assumption of weakness is one of the key reasons that Muslim women are more likely to be targets of racial vilification than Muslim men.

“Bigots see a woman wearing a veil and assume that she’s weak and submissive—that there’s no real chance they’re going to be challenged on what they say to her.”

The refrain I hear repeated again and again is that of a constant sense of “visibility”—a sense of being watched (and judged) by multiple sets of eyes in any room you happen to walk into, eyes that will dart away and pretend to be otherwise occupied the moment you happen to walk in, eyes that will dart away and pretend to be otherwise occupied the moment you happen to look back.

Sherwk Muttlak, who just completed her Honours in English at USyd, moved to attend university in Australia from the Muslim-dominated country of Saudi Arabia.

“I sort of knew what to expect because I went to an international school and had been very exposed to Western culture that way,” she says, “but it’s just notice that you’re a Muslim, and seen as a Muslim, all the time in Australia. Everyone in the Muslim community is aware that they’re deviating from the norm somehow, so being Muslim feels like it’s a really big deal. In Saudi, no one cared, it was just normal.”

Nadia Toutounji, another recent USyd graduate, describes her sense of being the object of a constant “gaze”—a gaze, she adds, which feels distinctly white and male. “Even when you’re alone, it’s like you’ve internalised it. You can’t stop feeling like you’re being judged on the basis of your gender, your race, your religion, no matter what you’re doing or where you are… It probably does have an influence on my decisions.”

Several women speak of their frustration at being so constantly watched from a distance, but never approached or talked to. “Just come and talk to me and ask me about whatever it is you’re thinking about in your head,” says Mariam. “It would make life a lot easier for everyone if more people would just try to bridge that gap.”

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The one question that Muslim women seem to be thoroughly used to being asked is some variation of: “But isn’t Islam really misogynistic?”

Whenever I cite this criticism, the women I speak to take on an air of a beleaguered mother trying to explain to their toddler, once again, why it is that they have to wear shoes when they go outside: kind, patient, understanding, but slightly frustrated that the kid can’t get their head around what should be a pretty simple concept.

“Of course Muslims may be sexist, but Islam itself isn’t,” says Sherwk. “The whole world’s patriarchal, and there’s sexism absolutely everywhere.”  But, she argues, the particular attention the West affords to sexism and misogyny in Islam is largely grounded in racism.

“If white men were as genuinely concerned about female oppression on a broader level as they supposedly are about female oppression in Muslim communities, then I don’t think gender inequality would be an issue in Australia anymore. But the fact that there are still so many issues for all women in Australia suggests to me that all their talk about helping Muslim women is just a socially-acceptable way for them to attack Islam, or them trying not to acknowledge the inequality that they’re responsible for themselves,” she says.

Sherwk and many of her peers insist that, to quote Indian feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak, “white men saving brown women from brown men” will never be able to adequately address whatever issues of sexism exist in the Muslim community in Australia. “When a white person starts talking about liberating Muslim women or helping Muslim women or educating Muslim women, that just sounds racist, it’s not something that’s actually going to make a difference to us,” says Sherwk.

Dr Carland agrees, “When white people or the West approach Islam with critical force, Muslim communities are just going to shut up shop against them.”

In the course of her research, Dr Carland found that the most effective gender reforms in Muslim communities have come from a “pro-faith perspective.”

“They see Islam as the solution to sexism, not the problem,” she explains. “Many Muslims see it as a huge part of their religious obligation to fight sexism and discrimination in their communities. [They] fight against sexism because they see it as anathema to the teachings of their faith and the way it should work.” Overwhelmingly, Carland says, Islam “was exactly what enabled their battle against sexism in their communities, exactly what made their work necessary and made them so resolved to do it.”

Nasreen Dean, a fifth-year Bachelor of Science/Arts student, and the current Vice-President of SUMSA, says that as a Muslim woman she constantly seeks to “highlight male privilege and white privilege from the shadows and expose it for what it is.”  “The pure Islam handed down and enforced by our parents has been distorted by years of physical and intellectual warfare and we no longer live under the true governance of Islam,” she says, but argues that “fighting oppression is central to the Islamic tradition.”

Sherwk, meanwhile—who is in the process of setting up a website with friends looking at issues of sexism and racism around Islam—says that she is constantly on the lookout for “sexism dressed up as Islam” in her communities. “When someone says that women should stay in the kitchen because that’s what the Prophet says, I tell them that they’re wrong… I call them out on it, even it’s just a throwaway comment, or a powerful person talking. It’s not OK that they’re using Islam to justify their own sexist positions.”

While there’s a clear and powerful push for justice and equality by Muslim women within their community, there’s a certain ambivalence amongst the women I speak to about designating their work “feminism” or themselves “feminists”.  Some “don’t like labels”; some are “sort of” feminists; some are “still making up [their] mind”.

“The relationship between Islam and feminism is very delicate,” explains Dr Carland. “In the minds of lots of Muslims, the term ‘feminism’ is still inextricably tied up with colonialism, with a long history of white people telling Muslims to act like them and give up everything they know and everything they hold dear.”

“Some individuals tend to think the only form of feminism is mainstream feminism streaked by neoliberalism and whiteness, which is used as a tool to reinforce Islamophobic and racist narratives of needing to “liberate” Muslim women,” says Nasreen. Sherwk, meanwhile, believes that feminist organisations such as FEMEN—which views all religions as manifestations of the patriarchy—alienate a lot of Muslim women, making feminism seem monolithically anti-Islam.  “It’s not a matter of not being educated, or not understanding feminism,” she says. “For most people it’s just a matter of not seeing your values reflected in places like FEMEN and deciding you don’t want to be a part of that.”

“Any sort of feminism that tells me I need to stop wearing a hijab, I just don’t want anything to do with,” one student tells me. “People just don’t accept how subjective their view of what’s oppressive is. Like, I used to think the fact that a lot of women feel like they have to wear makeup when they leave the house—that they spend all this time literally painting their faces before they can go outside—is kind of oppressive and patriarchal, but I accept now that that’s their choice and what they value and we’re just different, that’s their way of expressing themselves in the same way I express myself with the veil. There’s nothing… that makes one more oppressive than the other.”

The traditional USyd Wom*n’s Collective has been working to ensure that it acknowledges the different experiences, values, and perspectives of women of, for example, different race, class, ability, gender identification, or ethnicity. But Fatema believes that there would still be a large number of Muslim women at USyd who would be reticent to participate in such a traditional feminist space.  It’s for this reason that she has decided that the Muslim Wom*n’s Collective will not be designated “feminist”, despite personally identifying as a feminist.

“The most important thing to me is having a space where we can all get together and talk and help each other, not that I get everyone together and try to make them arbitrarily call themselves feminists,” she says. “If they’ve looked at feminism and weighed it up and decided that it’s not for them… it’s no one’s job to tell them that they’re wrong about that decision.”

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Muslim Women Comic
Comic by Iman Ayoubi

At OWeek this year, the Muslim Wom*n’s Collective ran an event called, quite simply, “Meet A Muslim”. As thousands of students swarmed their way down Eastern Avenue, optimistically collecting free condoms and Red Bull to the beat of a hyper-cheerful soundtrack, members of the collective invited their peers to come and say hello to a Muslim woman, for perhaps the first time in their lives.

“We just want people to feel like they can come and talk to us and ask any questions they have without feeling awkward or intimidated. We want them to see that we’re seriously just completely normal people,” Fatema says.

It seems like a resounding indictment of the treatment of Muslims in Australia that the members of the collective see a need for this sort of formalised event; that they know, from long experience, that they can’t count on people just introducing themselves and establishing relationships in the ordinary course of day-to-day life at USyd as people from other backgrounds or religions can. Nevertheless, it’s heartening that, in spite of the ignorance and hostility to which Muslim women are so often subjected by members of the public, they still feel sufficiently confident in themselves and their beliefs to put themselves out there as representatives of their religion. They are confident that they can answer all the questions that people might ask them; that they are capable of defending their choices to anyone who might be sceptical of them; and that, once people actually meet “someone like us”, they will cease to rely upon caricatured media impressions to inform their attitudes and behaviour towards Islam.

These assumptions, fortunately for them, are fairly sound. A recent Gallup study in Europe, for example, showed that people who were geographically isolated from Muslim populations were eight times more likely to say they wouldn’t want a Muslim person as a neighbour than people who lived in integrated areas.

Muslims currently make up just two per cent of Australia’s 23 million-person population. It is therefore unsurprising—albeit disheartening—that, given the link between interpersonal contact and tolerance, so many Australians are extremely wary of Islam and its followers.

“There are a number of structural barriers that tend to keep Muslim women’s voices out of mainstream media and public debate, but Muslim women make up the overwhelming majority of the footsoldiers who are out there doing tireless, unpaid, bridge-building volunteer work that makes that profound difference, on an individual level, to how Muslims are perceived in Australian society. They’re the ones at the coalface between the Muslim community and Australian society at large,” says Dr Carland.

The women with whom I spoke all seemed to see themselves as sitting at this same “coalface”. They spoke openly and articulately about the constant effort they feel they need to go to in their day-to-day lives to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions about themselves as Muslim women, and about their faith at large. And, despite the generally appalling portrayal of Muslims in the Australian media, they all seemed eager and excited to speak to Honi about their ideas and experiences, hopeful that it would help them get their message—of respect, understanding, change—across to more of their USyd peers.