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Sultana's Dream
August 2012


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A Radical Plan  

Muslims often feel maligned by 'the media'. The media, in truth, is the sum of many parts: what's served up on Today Tonight or by some savagely populist columnist in the News Ltd stable is different in tone and tenor from content in a publication like The Age, where I work.

Even though quality journalism is facing its own existential challenge in the digital age, it's a luxury to remain in a part of the media which does not have a sideline in vilification. On the whole, though, I accept that media in Australia does not do diversity 'well'. Sudanese and other minority ethnic and religious communities also tell me they feel the cold chill of media disfavour at times.

The recent census demonstrated once again the diversity of the Australian population. In contrast, the nation's newsrooms across multiple media remain stubbornly monocultural. I'd say that's part of the problem. Stereotypes do abound. Too much discussion around Muslim women, for example, over the past decade has been mediated through the burqa - a mode of dress very few local Muslim women actually adopt.

At the same time, Muslims need to be become less sensitive and more accessible. Cultivate relationships with journalists and media outlets that will be fair. And that does not just mean the news side of it. Recent Masterchef finalist Amina Elshafei and comedians like Nazeem Hussain have done more to break down barriers than the most earnest community spokespeople.

If you want to influence the mainstream media culture my best advice is really simple: participate, participate, participate. Show the diversity of the community. Don't just rely on an ubiquitous few to speak for you. Resist becoming defensive. Instead, become active on social media such as Twitter. Start a snappy blog. The small stuff also matters. Write a letter to the editor if something annoys you. Use talkback radio.... In a radical plan, hey, maybe even consider applying to become a journalist?

I diverted from a career in law to enter journalism in the 1990s; mine has been a wholly 'mainstream' career as a news reporter. I have been a member of the Canberra press gallery during the Paul Keating era, covered state politics memorably during the era that former premier Jeff Kennett threw sand at journalists, been at the former Woomera detention centre when asylum seekers staged a breakout.

My journalistic path has also crossed that of Dame Edna, Robert de Niro, Geoffrey Rush and Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip (it turned out to be one of his bad days, when he inquired whether indigenous people whom he met in North Queensland still used spears). I was also part of The Age/Sydney Morning Herald crisis reporting teams in the aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka.

In my travels, I have encountered Muslims and their representative organisations. But I've also not resiled from doing tougher stories involving Muslims, such as covering aspects of the Benbrika terror plot that unfolded in the Melbourne suburbs some years ago. I like to think my role helped shape a balanced coverage.

Being a journalist takes you to many unusual places. One of the more interesting experiences I've had was sparked at a function in 1998, when the diner next to me mentioned that he'd heard a group of newly arrived Iraqi refugee families had settled in a few towns in northern Victoria, Australia. He said that a number of the women were pregnant and were having difficulty because they lacked a female Arabic-speaking doctor.

I was fascinated by the story. The pictorial potential also intrigued me. Over the next few weeks, I made contact with the Iraqi community in Shepparton, Cobram and Kyabram. With their limited English and distrust of media scrutiny, they were reticent. It took time to build trust. It helped to be a Muslim. No one had to tell me that I needed to take a female photographer with me.

Over two days I interviewed more than a dozen people, visited homes and observed a women-only English language class in action. The most challenging part was to convince members of the class to go into a wheat field to pose for the picture on a hot afternoon [see below].

But the effort was worth it. Helped by the striking image, the story which emerged illustrated the texture and diversity of Muslim lives. And, importantly for any working journalist, I got a page one story out of it!

Farah Farouque  
Age Journalist
Iraqi women 'chilling out' in a Cobram field, northern Victoria, Australia, after English classes in 1998:
Photographer - Sandy Scheltema, Fairfax Syndication.

Sultana's Dream wishes to acknowledge a donation from Swinburne University Islamic Society making it possible for us to reproduce the original Fairfax image from The Age featured in Farah Faroukh's article. We thank them for their sponsorship.