Wearing a headscarf is a religious obligation for Muslim women but in Australia, the reactions of others can be a huge influence writes Febri Nurrahmi
It was Monday afternoon. Having just finished a class at the University of Sydney for the first time, I walked across City Road with a female Chinese friend. We were mid-conversation when I became aware of a white Caucasian male approaching me. Suddenly, I felt a hard fist on my right upper arm. I turned my head and it was him. He walked away without a single word. My legs were shaking. I tried hard to stand still. It definitely was not a warm greeting from Australia. My friend said, ‘‘It’s alright, Febri. He’s just a crazy man, nothing more.’’
But later I realised she was wrong. Hajar Rafiq, a 22-year-old Australian Muslim woman with a light green headscarf I met in the campus prayer room, told me that it was because of my headscarf. She recalled walking down the street, when a group of white Caucasian males yelled at her from a car window, ‘’Go back where you came from, f**k you!” ‘’It happened to me more than once,’’ said Rafiq, who is the former president of the Muslim student association at the University of Sydney. Soofia Que, a Muslim Australian woman of Pakistani background, has worn a headscarf since she was 11 years old.
‘’Sometimes, I found people on trains or buses were moving to sit somewhere else, when I sat next to them. Other times, people on the street were looking at me out of the corner of their eyes. Those things become so normal you just get used to it,’’ she told me.
Perhaps it sounds like an exaggeration to say there is strong prejudice against wearing a headscarf. But it does have foundation. ‘’Wearing a headscarf does change how people react to you,’’ said Louisa Ashraf, a female Anglo-Australian who converted to Islam.
Once, as she was trying to use a pedestrian crossing she had used many times before, no-one would stop to let her through. She says when she started wearing a headscarf, she found that she was treated differently in public. ‘’There was a lot less attention from men, more stares from many people, but sometimes I was yelled at from car windows,’’ she said. Muslim women often encounter such problems on the street. This is why some Muslim women may feel a sense of unease walking down the street alone. Such a minor incident is unfortunate in Australia, a land of milk and honey. so what has the New South Wales Government done to address this matter? Answer: nothing.
Assistant Conciliation Officer of Anti-Discrimination Board NSW, Amber Read said that there was no religious discrimination under the law. The NSW anti-discrimination law prohibits a public act that could incite or encourage hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule towards people because of their race, sex, marital status or domestic status, disability, homosexuality, age, transgender status, and carer’s responsibilities in employment.
Although the definition of race under the law contains ‘ethno-religious origin’, the term does not help much as Muslim is not ordinarily assumed to be of any particular ‘race’ in the way that racial and religious identity can conflate for Jews and Sikhs. A headscarf does not belong to a particular race. It is a religious symbol for Muslim women. A woman who wears the headscarf is like a full-time ambassador for Islam in public so if she is insulted, it is obviously because of her religion. Unfortunately, such cases are not covered under the law.
What does this mean for Muslim women living in this state? Muslim women find themselves in hot water over their decision to wear the headscarf: religious obligation on one side and social pressure on the other side. They are faced with the choice of holding firm or compromising their beliefs. Their choices are always wear a headscarf, wear it sometimes, or simply discard it.
Souad Ahmed, a research student at Sydney University, says she’s locked in a constant struggle between the desire to honour her religion and fear of being harassed. She follows all obligations in Islam, such as five daily prayers and fasting during the month of Ramadhan, but not this one. “I know it is my religious obligation to put on the headscarf,” she said. ‘’I have seen and heard stories about what has happened to other Muslim women who wear the headscarf. I fear getting insulted by non-Muslims if I were to wear it and I am afraid that people will perceive me differently.’’
But the story is different for Rafiq, Que and Ashraf. Considering compromising on an Islamic value as something strictly prohibited, there is no option for them to take off their headscarves in public. Though they find that aspects of Australian society make it difficult to practice Islam the way they should, they still follow the strict form of Islamic dress, full shrouding of the body. They respect their non-Muslims fellow citizens, they said, but feel at home in the Lakemba area, Sydney’s Muslim heartland.
Rafiq, Que, Ashraf, and Ahmed have been struggling living as Muslims in this country where they were born and raised. They are Muslims, but they are also Australians. Why should they have to choose one over the other? There is nothing to suggest that Muslims cannot live harmoniously with others. I recalled attending the birthdau party of a non-Muslim friend. Before the day, she rang me and said: ‘’Febri, I’ve got halal meat [where the meat is slaughtered according to Islamic law] and soft drinks for you. So you do not need to worry, just come.’’ It is not a big issue: in the end, it’s all about being respectful.
I am just a student visa holder who will leave this country for good in the next few weeks and return to Indonesia. I will no longer have to deal with such pressures. But for Muslim women who hold Australian citizenship, the aggressive and offensive actions I experienced will continue to be their nightmare, probably for generations to come.