16 Days Of Activism: Islamophobia And Australian Muslim Women

Last week in Sydney’s multicultural hub, a group of friends sat at the front of a Parramatta café, pondering the menu while chatting. CCTV footage shows that the three women—all hijab-wearing, with one heavily pregnant—were approached by an older man who began seemingly innocuous conservation. Within mere seconds of this interaction, security cameras captured the man lunging across the table and repeatedly punching the face of the 38-week pregnant woman. After he shoved aside one of the friends who had attempted to shield her, the pregnant women fell to the ground.  The silent video captures the graphic attack: the man continued to stomp on her head before being pulled away by patrons at the café. Rana Elasmar was treated for minor injuries at a nearby hospital. In a social media post, Elasmar explained how she—and much of the Muslim community—is accustomed to the hurls of Islamophobic verbal abuse.

“I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. I am a Muslim…I have experienced occurrences of verbal abuse and hate from other Australians in the past but I have never thought that physical abuse of this nature could happen to me”. Elasmar described the traumatic experience, detailing how – in that brief conversation before his violent onslaught—the perpetrator explicitly vocalized to the women his anti-Muslim hatred then proceeded to carry out this targeted, racist attack. “It is NOT ok,” Elasmar stated. “How somebody feels like they have the right to abuse another human being baffles me. It shows a lack of humanity”.

It is distressing enough that culturally and linguistically diverse individuals are acclimatized to everyday hate-speech and racial abuse. Coupled with the reality that a woman of colour was subject to such an overt display of physical violence in a public space is nothing but disgusting. Though undoubtedly disturbing, Elasmar’s story is not an isolated incident.

The assault occurred in the same week that Charles Sturt University published findings from a recent large-scale study. It is the most up-to-date publication which used raw data collected from the Islamophobia Register—an online website which was founded from the need to respond to growing anecdotal evidence of hate-speech and violence. The 2019 Islamophobia in Australia – II (2016-2017) report provides a comprehensive analysis of verified Islamophobic incidents by victims, proxies and witnesses, in public and online. The report found that Australian Islamophobic attacks requiring hospitalization have risen by 3% in recent years and that the racialized lens in which Muslims are seen is through tropes of being undemocratic, inherently violent and as the threatening terrorist. While Islamophobia is genderless, the report shows that there is an apparent gender disparity in both the virtual and public spheres.

The 2019 report confirms that 72% of Islamophobic victims were Muslim women and girls. An overwhelming number of these Australians were easily identifiable through their hijabs, further demonstrating that Muslim women are disproportionate victims of anti-Muslim hostility. They are targets of verbal abuse, xenophobic comments, physical intimidation and receive death threats, for no other reason but the expression of faith through dress choice. As is the case with Elasmar’s recent Islamophobic attack, the report explains that perpetrators were not deterred by security guards, surveillance cameras, nor the presence of others.

This follows the same trend identified in the previous report, where a majority of public Islamophobic attacks occurred in shopping centres and train stations. Almost always, Muslim women were alone or accompanied by young children. What is most alarming is how the bystander effect was present in nearly half of these cases—individuals were witness to Islamophobic confrontations, yet, they passed by and paid no attention to the incident. However, the data gained from witness reports of offline events suggests that some bystanders did not ignore the racist attack and chose to not intervene for fears of their own safety.

The 2019 report recognizes a key concern: a majority of Islamophobic occurrences are not being recorded or reported to authorities. From the 349 known cases—gained from the online register which was reported within 24-months—these examples only show ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Islamophobia within Australia has been normalized to such an extent that Muslim children are targets: perpetrators in the school environment include “school peers, teachers, school administration, other students’ parents or other adults”. Anti-Muslim terror attacks—such as, the 2016 Perth petrol bomb explosion at an Islamic school; the 2017 pig’s head left outside a Queensland mosque; or the actions “born out of hatred” which saw a man deliberately ramming his car into the gates of a mosque following the Christchurch terror attacks—provide a snapshot of this specific type of race-hatred.

The beginning of this week marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which also signposts the following 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. The UN specifies that— although gender-based violence can occur to anyone at any given time—“violence against women and girls is the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today”. Young girls and older women who live through humanitarian crises; who identify as LGBTQI+; and who are “…migrants and refugees, indigenous women and ethnic minorities, or women and girls living with HIV and disabilities” are particularly susceptible to the pervasive forms of sexual, psychological and physical violence.

When considering the confronting findings from the 2019 Islamophobia in Australia report, there should be no illusions held about the denigration of human rights for Australian Muslim women. In both on and offline cases, almost three-quarters of offenders were male and “where ethnicity was identified, perpetrators were predominately reported to be white Anglo-Celtic”. Visible Islamic institutions and the individuals—mainly women—who denote a quality of ‘Muslimness’, will continue to be vulnerable bodies and cites. They are perceived to be ‘easy targets’, thereby attracting anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobic violence. Furthermore, in raising questions about Australia’s multicultural legacy, Dr Derya Iner—chief author and editor of the report—asserts that the treatment of minority groups provides an “effective yardstick to measure how advanced we are in protecting human rights”.

Through Islamophobic rhetoric, there is an implication that Muslims are unable to assimilate or adopt the endorsed standards of living. Because of this, there exists wide-spread desensitization to everyday modes Islamophobia. This is inherently problematic. Muslims live as ‘the majority does’—however, what majority is consistently vilified through their racial and religious identities? Whether it be attending a social gathering at a pub and being refused entry by security guards because they didn’t “take that off” (referring to a young woman’s hijab) or being abused by police at a ‘routine traffic stop’ where authorities demanded the hijab-wearing driver to “swear to Allah” about their religion, or they’d be hurled off to a notorious detention centre—systemic prejudice continues to rear its ugly head in discourses surrounding Muslims in Australia. As Professor Mehemet Ozlap emphasizes  “the [2019] report will highlight a social problem that cannot be ignored or downplayed any longer”.

The 10th of December is Human Rights Day, marking the end of 16 Days of Activism. However, political and social activities for women’s rights should not be contained within set dates. Although personal safety is of imperative to consider, we cannot afford to be inactive when confronted with—our own or other’s—experiences of racial and religious vilification. Simply put: if you see or hear something, say something.  Act as an ally when questioning Islamophobic logic and remind perpetrators of shared values. The above cases—inclusive of Elasmar’s horrific experience— resonates with many: the fear of being targeted can be debilitating and acts as a reminder of a Muslim’s outsider status.  As Iner as explains, there is a type of social responsibility which is lacking in the current political climate. Correcting this systemic injustice requires the attention and collaborative efforts individuals and institutions “…to make Australia a dream country for everyone”.