Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Instead of yelling at us, ask Muslim women to join the discussion

Women across the world are disproportionately affected by wars, armed conflicts and terrorism.

While many of the gendered impacts of international conflict, including suffering more rape and sexual violence, and further losses of access to health and education, have been on the record for many years, other more insidious and sometimes unexpected after-effects have only recently come to light.

Demonisation and marginalisation of innocent people is not going to solve anything. 

Not only are women the most disadvantaged by war, poverty, climate change, and imbalanced educational opportunities, but some of them now also face the worst forms of racist harassment as a backlash to terrorism.

For a number of reasons, Muslim women living in Western countries have become the most likely targets of those retaliating and venting their anger in the aftermath of terrorist incidents. British anti-Islamophobia group Tell MAMA estimates that 60 per cent of victims of Islamophobic attacks are women. The group says that veiled women suffer more abuse, with those wearing the niqab (face veil) the most at risk.


It doesn't help that women are already seen as public property when out and about, considered fair game for cat-calling, intimidation, harassment, and physical violence. But when they are dressed in identifiably "Muslim" clothing such as the hijab, or appear to be of Middle Eastern background, this behaviour only intensifies.

Racism and sexism is creating a toxic mix for the hundreds of thousands of Muslim women living in our country. Many are feeling anxious, fearful and alienated.

Public demands to "get out of my country and go back to where you came from" are familiar territory for many Muslim women living in Australia. Indeed, I have also been on the receiving end of many such messages delivered through social media. One kind contributor recently told me that "Muslims are complete scum", before clarifying that "Muslim women are worse than the men".

In the aftermath of Paris and other recent attacks, the violence is only getting worse. Both physical and verbal abuse of women wearing the hijab is documented as taking place on public transport in Sydney, outside landmarks in Melbourne, in airports, in parks and on the streets. Following any media attention on Muslims, reported abuse of Muslim women (and women who look "Muslim") in our own backyard increases.

Calls to remove Arabic from Optus advertising at Casula reinforce that many hostile critics do not distinguish between race and religion. Non-Muslim Arab and South Asian women are also at risk.

Sadly, while Muslim women are at the frontline of the public disadvantage and abuse, they remain in the background of the political responses to terrorism and community divisions. Their voices are silenced or go unheard in the discussion over how to tackle terrorism, radicalisation and create a more harmonious society.

Politicians' meetings with "community leaders" generally consist of photo shoots and roundtables with prominent men within ethnic and religious communities. This is not to say that these meetings are unhelpful, but we should all be concerned if those most vulnerable to violence on our streets are not part of finding solutions to end it.

Ultimately, demonisation and marginalisation of innocent people is not going to solve anything. It's time to have a different conversation – one that explores deeper structural issues. This conversation must engage with the diverse Muslim community, especially women.

While there is no shortage of Muslim women who work prominently within the community, and who are well-positioned to provide advice and support, very few are invited to become part of the national conversation.

Over the past few weeks, we have heard a lot about the need to unite as a community and build a more cohesive society together. A crucial part of that will be allowing space for and seeking out the currently inaudible voices of many Muslim women to be heard, in both the public and political spheres. These voices are some of the most marginalised and most victimised, and they desperately need to come to the surface.

The danger in keeping these voices quiet is not only further entrenching discrimination and inequality but as a society we are also missing out on the real opportunity of using first-hand experiences, insights and knowledge to devise long-lasting solutions of such complex problems. We must let wisdom prevail because we cannot allow more violence, trauma and hate to destroy our humanity.

Dr Mehreen Faruqi is the Greens NSW spokesperson for multiculturalism and the status of women. She is the first Australian Muslim woman MP.


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