What women want

“I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance he laid the blame on a woman.” – Nancy Astor (The first female British politician)

THE cartoon below has been around for some time. It is one of those succinct pieces of media, which touches on the complicated debate around the question: What is a woman’s choice? Put simply, this picture illustrates the perennial actuality that a woman’s body is a site of regulation.

The western woman is bombarded with images of what she should look like and how she should behave. Depending on what she wears, where she goes and who she associates with, all go towards qualifying her as an acceptable female.

What a woman is and what she is supposed to be are subjected to an array of interventions. She is plucked, pruned and preened within an inch of herself. She is a working project that is never quite complete, always trying to become a better version; the ‘Beauty Myth’ as Naomi Wolf called it. The underlying socio-political structures of the ‘Beauty Myth’ phenomenon and the way the female body is regulated are complicated.

In the West we talk about individual choice. However, the choices we make are, to a large extent, governed by external and internal forces – family, friends, church, politics and education – all of which regulate our decisions. In saying this, no one could tell me that my own decisions do not reflect my morals and values and the way I want to live my life.

So why then do we feel that Muslim women have not enacted the same decisions that reflect their morals and values? These questions are relevant for the Uniting Church, as a religious body born of a western culture. How we interact with Muslim communities affects this discussion.

The current malicious and xenophobic attacks, primarily on Muslim women, are being heard throughout the country. At a recent anti-Islamophobia forum, women had the chance to stand up and talk about the abuse they and their friends have faced in recent weeks.

Tasneem Chopra, a prominent Muslim woman of Indian heritage, African birth and Australian upbringing was a panellist. Tasneem was one of many noticeable Muslim women who spoke of the increase in violence, fear and anger since 2001.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 October detailed more than 30 attacks on Muslim women in the three weeks leading up to the article.

The stories I have heard shocked and angered me. A young Muslim woman told me she was in a parking lot in her car, when an older man viciously slated her.

He yelled at her, swearing and abusing, telling her to “go back to where you came from” (an all-too-often heard utterance). This young woman was scared and didn’t know what to do. Finally, all she could think of was to yell back, “why don’t you go back to Britain?”

Nafisa, a young Somali/Australian mother, wife, community development worker and friend of mine, recently said something that resonated with me. She was interviewed for the online magazine Mamamia about this subject and made the comment “women have always been in the firing line for men’s mistakes”.

Nafisa is one of many Muslim women I have the privilege of knowing. These women are strong and confident in their own beliefs, but they are also sick of having to defend those beliefs. As Nafisa so rightly said, Muslim women are unjustly bearing the brunt of people’s fear and anger and constantly having to reiterate their own humanity.

There is an all-too-familiar feeling that we have been down this road before. Back when it was Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ Muslim women and so-called ‘Arabic looking men’ were abused verbally and in some cases physically. Anecdotal stories were rife and the feeling of apprehension and fear was palpable.

Although this was a horrendous time, some major initiatives were developed.

A particularly difficult situation arose when the Christian group ‘Catch the Fire Ministries’ made strong statements about the ‘evils’ of the religion of Islam.

The peak body for Muslims in Victoria, the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), decided to take legal action against Catch the Fire under the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.

What was heartening was that the Uniting Church, and the Commission for Mission in particular, stood side-by-side in the courtroom with the ICV and made it clear that this so-called Christian group did not represent the Uniting Church; we took a stance beside our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith.

Another initiative is a wonderful course aimed at bringing emerging young Muslim leaders together and assuring them their voices could be heard by policy makers at all levels of our society. They, as valued citizens and Australians, had every right to air their opinions and furthermore, had the equal right to criticise what they may have felt was bad policy in journalism or politics.

The ICV approached La Trobe University’s ‘Centre for Dialogue’ and the State Government of Victoria funded a course for 20 young leaders – young women and young men chosen by interview by the ICV. The course boasts more than 140 alumni, many whom are leaders today.

Throughout the course the young leaders meet with state politicians, local councillors, as well as members of the media at SBS, the ABC and The Age.

They travel to Canberra and interview federal ministers, meet with leaders of other faiths, visit the Jewish Museum and are taken for a guided walk by leaders of the Aboriginal community. They also spend time with Catholic leaders and nuns and other human rights activists who introduce them to asylum seekers.

These bright, vibrant, opinionated, intelligent and critical young minds teach people they meet that Muslims are a varied, talented and interesting community who must not be seen as monolithic.

They are inspiring young leaders who leave behind a trail of new converts to interfaith and intercultural understanding. And, if you listen, you will hear them speaking against hate and fear with love, understanding and belonging.

April Robinson
Interfaith Network Developer
Commission for Mission

Many thanks to Malcolm Evans for the image www.evanscartoons.com.

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