Last year a local Sydney artist painted the ‘Say no
to burqas’ mural on the outside of his workshop in Newtown. He claimed it was
to ‘promote dialogue’ on a ‘touchy’ issue. The mural attracted protests
and demonstrations and was defaced about 40 times; a number of those involved in
defacing the mural have been charged; charges range from malicious damage,
resisting and hindering arrest and assaulting police. The
hearings began in July.
On the first weekend of May an
art exhibition was held in Newtown, a trendy inner city suburb of Sydney
famously irreverent to the mainstream. With a third of its population born
overseas, the suburb has welcomed difference for as long as its residents
recall. A short stroll down its main streets quickly confirms that the hustle
and jive flowing from an eclectic mix of international cuisine, music, fashion
and people is anything but a coincidence.
Against this backdrop the Cross
Border Collective, Muslim Youth of Sydney, and Justice and Arts Network co-hosted
‘No Disrespect’, an art exhibition that was far from ordinary. Beneath the
splashes of colour, delicate inks and stretches of canvas came a very loud
message: How about letting us represent ourselves?
And who exactly is “us”?
Simple. It is women anywhere. But in particular Muslim-Australian women who are
constantly spoken for: without authority, without consultation and most
dangerously— without truth.
‘No Disrespect’ presented
an important opportunity for dialogue between these women (many of whom were
contributing artists), the general public, academics, activists and the media.
And the result was absolutely phenomenal! Featuring a collection of beautiful
art, stellar female performances by Miriam Waks and Soul Beatz, aka Rima, and
plenty of intelligent dialogue to engage and inspire, it was hard to ignore the
energy and elation buzzing through the crowd.
Visitors admired the creativity
that was unleashed, and the realisation that female empowerment can take many
different forms. The local community appreciated the presence of the exhibition
for its upbeat focus, drawing attention away from the divisiveness preached by
the controversial “say no to burqas” mural located just a few blocks away.
The increasingly popular
narrative directed at Muslim women is a perplexing mix of “You don’t belong
here!” or “We have to save you!” At times like this it’s more important
than ever to set the record straight.
Along with the wonderful
displays of creative dissent, a panel of speakers gave their views:
Edward Santow, anti-discrimination law expert from the Public Interest and
Dr Christina Ho, senior lecturer from the University of Technology Sydney
Claire Parfitt, local activist from the Cross Border Collective, and
Hanan Dover, Muslim psychologist and community leader from Mission of Hope.
outlined the legal position in Australia and highlighted the deficiencies of New
South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act (1977) where ethno-religious
discrimination is prohibited but religious discrimination per se is not.
Religious discrimination must be closely linked with ethnic origin; the Jewish
community has been successful in proving this, but Muslims have not. The
situation is the same in Federal legislation where the question has yet to be
addressed by the courts.
described the movements to ban the burqa and niqab, in Australia and abroad, as
concealing the real agendas: “these bans affect very few people directly, but
they affect most Muslims indirectly … they put Muslims on notice that
they’re not wanted in a community”.
Calls to ban the burqa are
often ‘dressed up’ as being essential to female empowerment. Responses on
the event Facebook page overwhelmingly rejected this argument. Sergio Redegalli,
who painted the mural which sparked so much controversy, depicts face veils as a
symbol of repression and violent extremism, a security threat to Australia. By
portraying women who choose to wear the face veil as a danger to society, the
mural dehumanises them – the opposite of empowering.
Artist Sana Gillani, recalled
being ‘inspired’ by comments made by WA Minister for Women’s Interests,
Robyn McSweeney, who referred to the burqa as ‘alien to the “Australian way
of life”. In response Sana constructed ‘Australiens’ with its message:
‘the only things alien in my mind are … racism, sexism and fascism creeping
its way back into Australian society”.
We can all hope that this is
merely the beginning of a call for dialogue rather than disrespect. Often we are
held back not only by misperceptions or prejudices, but also by our own silence.
The greatest challenge will be to go beyond merely dancing to the tunes of
others, to create our own space to tell our own truths.