Islamic women appear to be bearing the brunt of racism against Muslims in Australia, with a new report revealing 80 per cent feel unsafe and unwelcome in the country and some describing their lives as similar to living in a conflict situation. The research exposed bleak tales of racism, including being spat on, having cigarettes put out on them, verbal abuse and having their hijab pulled. Nearly half of the women interviewed for the report by Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria said they were victims of racism and 90 per cent said they knew of other Muslim women who had experienced racism.
The report, Race, Faith and Gender: Converging Discriminations against Muslim women in Victoria, said some women are hiding at home for up to a month following overseas terror attacks so as to avoid racist incidents directed at them. Joumanah el Matrah, the report's co-author, said while researchers had been aware racism was prevalent in the community, they did not know to what level it existed. "What we were surprised by was the extent of the racism women were experiencing, that it was a daily occurrence," she said in an interview with The National. "We were also surprised the level of apprehension and fear the women lived under."
However, Ms El Matrah, who is also the executive director of the Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria, said the biggest shock was the level of racism inflicted on children. "The women felt quite disempowered by their children's experiences of racism and how to deal with them. They were very good at protecting their children, but they didn't know how do deal with the psychological and emotional victimisation of their children."
The study involved holding focus groups in the state of Victoria with more than 300 Muslim women who were from low socio-economic groups and predominantly non-English speakers. Many had recently arrived in Australia. One of those interviewed told the following story: "I was going shopping with my son, he is blind. These men followed us and one extinguished his cigarette on my head. I felt it burning. I started to run with my son. They came up and surrounded us, six of them, Australian and white."
Another said: "I didn't speak to anyone about it, just people in my community. I didn't know who to go to. Besides, it's not as if it happens once in a blue moon, it happens all the time - they spit at us and pull our hijabs and call us black." Kevin Dunn, a professor in human geography and urban studies at the University of Western Sydney, said the report confirmed findings in other western countries of a rise in racism following the September 11 attacks.
"Those attacks and the political statements and debates that swirl around those events provide perpetrators of racism with some sort of licence to act," he said in the report. "The experiences of racism in the latter part of 2001 are shocking and the everyday racist incivilities that have carried on since reveal the unacceptable exposure of Australian Muslim women to racism. These hate crimes and incivilities against Australians should have been seen as a national emergency."
Other findings from the report showed Muslim women were more likely to experience racism on the street, in shops and shopping malls. The wearing of the hijab was the most frequently cited reason for experiencing racism. Many said they experienced a consistent sense of low-grade fear and vulnerability and they no longer travelled alone. Ms El Matrah said while physical attacks were becoming rare, verbal abuse and such acts as spitting were still happening.
"What we have to do is a great deal of anti-racism education so that people no longer felt they could do that and get away with it." The report made several recommendations to the government on how to deal with the problem, including setting up a not-for-profit centre against racism that monitors and evaluates the impact of bigotry, producing a racism survival kit for Muslim women and children and education programmes.
"For women it's all about a practical response to their situation and their concerns. At the moment it is wait and see, but we are definitely going to pursue the government in this regard." However, while many women said they no longer felt wanted in the country, Ms El Matrah said they had no intention of going home. "It is far easier and far better living in Australia than where they came from. They don't have the same protection and rights that they have here. They felt that no matter how bad it gets here, it's still better than their country because they come from places where there is a great deal of oppression, civil strife and refugee camps. They are far more protected and far more at peace here than they would be where they came from."