By Ghena Krayem. This article is part of our February 2013 focus on Religion and Human Rights.
Muslim women in Australia are a diverse community, coming from many different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, not to mention having various levels of religiosity. However they are united by their identification with a faith that many assert is contrary to women’s rights. The two rights of freedom of religion and gender equality are well established principles within the international human rights framework, and the perceived tension between them becomes magnified in a multicultural context like Australia.
It would not be an over-exaggeration to state that Australian Muslim women often stand at the crossroads of these two rights. This is based on the common perception that Islam is an oppressive regime that denies women basic human rights. Is it this view that has led many Muslim women in Australia to be constantly asked “What is it like being a Muslim woman in Australia?” Is it hard, is it challenging? Why can’t you just be like everyone else, why can’t you just learn to be Australian? Why would someone so educated, articulate and confident allow herself to be forced into wearing that “thing” on her head?
Muslim women don’t have to choose between their religious identity and their Australian identity, they are in a position to embrace both
These are just some of the questions that regularly come our way as Muslim women in Australia, regardless of our age, culture, ethnicity, educational qualification or professional expertise. This experience is not limited to those women who choose to wear hijab (head cover) or niqab (face cover). I guess it is to be expected when you are part of a faith that is currently under a huge spotlight.
So let’s be frank and honest – usually people want to know how can any woman identify with such a faith. It must be either because we have been somehow coerced into submission or we have been brainwashed into a sense of false consciousness where we are unable to know what is in our best interest – either way as Muslim women we need to be saved, either from our faith or ourselves. A quick glance at any debate about banning Muslim women from dressing according to their religious beliefs or engaging in other expressions of religiosity demonstrates that we are portrayed by the extremes. On the one hand we are a threat to society as our dress depicts us as followers of fundamentalist movements, yet on the other hand we are coerced into covering ourselves and thus we need laws to emancipate us from the shackles of our men. These depictions are undoubtedly fuelled by the media’s narrow portrayal of Muslim women.
Whilst many Muslim women, including myself, would vehemently argue that Islam is not an oppressive religion, we do appreciate that there are horrific practices against Muslim women where religion is used as a justification for violence against them. I would never want to trivialise their trauma, for we only need to be reminded of the recent story of Malala Yousefzai – the Pakistani school girl who nearly lost her life fighting for the right of girls to have access to an education – to appreciate that for many Muslim women their struggle remains in seeking basic human rights that we all take for granted. However, my argument is that there are many factors other than religion that have led to the violation of women’s rights and that many Muslim activists and feminists would argue that blaming Islam is a simplistic answer to a multifaceted issue. Ironically, alongside cases of abuse of women in certain countries, we see that some of these very countries house women who occupy positions of political power and leadership. For example in Bangladesh the present Prime Minister and Opposition leader are both women.
So, what are the challenges faced by Muslim women here in Australia? In responding to this question, I rely upon the research I engaged in when writing a paper for the Australian Human Rights Commission a couple of years ago on the issue of freedom of religion and gender. I found that most of the women I interviewed spoke at length of the benefit of living in Australia where they felt that they were respected and allowed to live their life according to their faith. Muslim women leaders from across Australia spoke of how Islam promotes gender equality and supports the full participation of women in all aspects of community life.
However, they were all quick to point out that at times the interpretation of Islamic principles and practices has been to the detriment of women, and that one of the challenges for Muslim women in Australia is being able to speak out when this occurs. In fact, very often Muslim women do speak out and this requires Muslim women to be well aware of their rights according to Islamic teachings and to understand the difference between what may be a patriarchal and harmful cultural practice and what is religious practice – this is critical in a country like Australia which is a melting pot of the world’s cultures.
There is nothing more critical to Muslim women than being able to combat oppressive practices by demonstrating that they have no basis in religion. One such example is forced marriage; not only is this an abhorrent practice but also, according to Islamic law, a lack of consent renders the marriage void. Another example is domestic violence; again despite the misconception that Islam condones violence against women, Muslim women leaders in Australia have gained the support and assistance of the Muslim community including leading Imams to spread the message that Islam does not permit violence against women. To the credit of these women activists we have now had a specialised support centre and refuge for Muslim women escaping domestic violence operating for over 25 years in Australia. I am proud to say that I head the organisation that auspices this service. Unfortunately this good work rarely gets a mention in the media.
In this way, Muslim women are taking control, using their faith to articulate their rights and thereby exercising agency in how they experience their faith as Australian Muslim women. Change and improvement in certain community practices and attitudes is occurring as Muslim women are becoming more confident in their own religious identity and not allowing their faith to be misused as a source of justification for the denial of their rights. Muslim women don’t have to choose between their religious identity and their Australian identity, they are in a position to embrace both.
However, articulating their rights requires the voice of Muslim women to be heard, both within the Muslim community itself and also within the wider Australian community. This isn’t always easy, especially when there appears to be no qualification necessary to express an expert opinion on Muslim women. Who can forget the scene of Fred Nile, member of the NSW parliament, walking down the streets of Lakemba in 2010 claiming that the objective of his Bill before parliament effectively banning the dress of Muslim women was to protect Muslim women from a sexually repressive practice? This is not to suggest Mr Nile is not entitled to hold such an opinion or more broadly that criticisms can’t be made about Muslim women or Islamic practices, but I strongly recommend that when such issues are debated that we make it a priority to actually hear what Muslim women themselves have to say; after all they are the ones with the expertise.
Giving Muslim women the space to speak about their experiences does not mean that people must stop offering a critical analysis of issues affecting us, but it might just open a window into understanding the diverse experiences of women who are as committed to being Australian as they are to being Muslim and, despite the challenges, are quite skilful at reconciling both aspects of their identity. In fact many of us strongly believe that we are committed citizens not in spite of our faith but because of our faith.
Dr Ghena Krayem is a lecturer at Sydney Law School.