I am a young girl, no more than five, and sitting in the car as my mum parks in front of a grocer in Liverpool. I ask her to please get me a Kinder Surprise, more for the toy inside than the chocolate exterior. My mum nods and smiles down at me before getting out of the car. I’m about to follow her when I see a middle-aged woman with blonde hair, who is older than my mother and carrying a bag of groceries in each hand. She stops, puts down the groceries, and hurls expletives at my ‘wog’ mother who, according to her, should ‘fuck off back to her country’. Seventeen years later and I still see that experience as the one that really, truthfully showcases mainstream ideology towards Muslims.
I am eight and in the passenger seat; my mum is driving along the Hume Highway. I’ve just begun to notice the strangeness with which the man in the white Commodore ahead of us is driving. He keeps braking suddenly, and my mum tries to merge into another lane to move away from him but he follows, merging in front of us. He brakes abruptly again, and once more my mum tries to move away from him. This time he stays in his lane—the one on our right—and he and his friend begin to yell at us from their car. Before we can do anything, the friend hocks back and spits directly through the open window and into mum’s face. They speed off, laughing, and I stare up at my mum who’s now crying angry tears, and wonder what she had done to offend them.
I am ten and now wear the scarf. We’ve just landed back in Sydney after a visit to Lebanon to see our family. I’m making small talk with the white woman in front of me, who’s from Britain and in Sydney on a two week business trip. She asks me how long I plan to stay in Sydney, and I reply that I was born and raised here. ‘Oh,’ she says, and turns around. That’s the end of our conversation, and staring wide eyed at her back I wonder what I had said to offend her.
I’ve been asked multiple times where I’m from by people who aren’t satisfied when my answer is ‘Australia’. So I have to tell them that my parents were born overseas but that I was born and raised in this country. The response to this is almost always an awkward knowing smile, as if I’ve given an answer that could not possibly be right.
These are not new or foreign experiences, but rather constant reminders to myself and my Muslim sisters—reverts and those born into Islam—that we live in a society that barely knows us or treats us with the same kindness and inclusion that we see afforded to others. I am an Honours student majoring in English literature, and just two months ago I was asked if I planned to use my Honours education to become a translator.
This is real. This is the prejudice, the ignorance, and the presumptuous attitudes that we deal with every day.
But surely in university, in an environment where all kinds of people come to learn, surely those assumptions would no longer be an issue. Except that they are. Mariam Bazzi attended her first day of university with the same naivety that we all do. “I thought I was going into an environment where like, they’re so open-minded and going to accept me for who I am… but on the contrary, y’know. I remember my first History tutorial. I walked in, and this guy walked in late, and there was only one seat left next to me. And he was so hesitant to sit next to me. And when he sat next to me he sort of moved his seat over so he didn’t have to look at me or speak to me.”
But maybe he was just anxious to sit next to a woman? That may be true, but we experience the same thing with non-Muslim women as well. Most, if not all of my undergraduate classes were spent sitting alone, watching as men and women filed in after me and took their seats at tables that were not mine.
‘There’s a definite consensus that the scarf makes us unapproachable,” says Fatima Alameddine, in reference to her observations of discussions in her class about the hijab (the veil which covers the hair but not the face). “We were discussing implications of it, and there’s a lot of white boys in the class. And they’re like, ‘it’s restrictive, they feel like they can’t talk to you’.” But who, other than Western media, paints it as a restriction? Time and time again Muslim women have appeared on television as part of interviews, and said repeatedly that the scarf is anything but a restriction. How can it be fair to view a religious practice that is not Western, within a Western framework?
And often times it goes beyond just ignorance. Juman Abdoh is an Australian-born Palestinian woman, and at the end of 2014, was ‘giving out flyers for an event for SUMSA’ on the busy bridge above City Road. ‘And then there was a lady; she was in her early 20s … she came up to us. My friend was giving her a flyer and she attacked her verbally…. “You bloody Muslims! Go back to where you came from! You’re the filth of this country!” It was very in your face’. But perhaps the worst part was that no passers-by said anything. ‘They sort of just separated and walked around us.’
‘I might be the only Quran anybody reads,’ Mariam says, understanding that people may not ever read a physical Quran and that, as a result, she must remain an accurate representation of Islam regardless of the Islamophobia around her.
Her identity as a Muslim woman is an ‘advantage… [it] pushes me every day… It’s my drive.’ And yet the media would have us believe that being Muslim requires that we remain ignorant and subservient, as if our Islam oppresses us. Juman’s desire to excel is not the exception to the rule; it is the rule. Fatima al-Fihri in the year 859, founded Al-Qarawiyin in Fez, Morocco, the first degree-awarding university long before Western civilisation stopped deeming women as property and non-whites as racially inferior. Getting an education in Islam is mandatory.
During a temporary stint at a small law firm, Fatima Rauf found herself acquainted with a white woman ‘who just came and sat down next to me and wouldn’t stop asking me questions about being Muslim. And I could sense that she wasn’t trying to offend me…but she was so ignorant and so racist in her beliefs about Islam that I was just internally cringing and laughing at the same time. She was just like, “oh god, so like you’re educated and stuff”…“it’s so great that Muslim girls are now going to uni”. I was like Muslim girls have been going to uni for a long time!’
Islamic tradition is full of female role models; Khadijah, (may Allah be pleased with her), was a woman who governed her own business in Mecca, who proposed to the Prophet rather than waiting for him to make the move, and who remained his rock till the day she passed away. If to be a successful, well-learned, and ambitious woman is so wrong in Islam, then the Prophet would not have loved her so dearly and wept so ardently at her passing.
Today, culture and the abhorrent actions of a minority are so easily mistaken for religion, that we fail to see that arranged marriages in Pakistan, the horrors in Iraq, and an inability to drive in Saudi Arabia are not in any way reflective of Islam or its teachings. The rulings of ISIS and Taliban are not in any way indicative of the fundamental teachings of Islam, and to conflate the two is harmful.
My dad was agnostic for a time because he believed that Muslims did a poor job of representing their religion. I know too what it means to have doubt, and what it means to be surrounded by people who call themselves Muslims but do nothing that Islam asks of them. However, that isn’t Islam’s fault.
Who we are, as Muslim women, is unique, varied and encompasses a multitude of aspirations and experiences; every one of those experiences are as valid as each other.
So put down the Western lens and let us show you who we are.