Activists, Advocates and an Anniversary
Intelligent, engaging and totally committed to the rights of women in their respective countries… their words resonated with every woman present. Their good humour and fluent English was a bonus for the gathering of sixty-two women who met for a
Sultana’s Dream special dinner at a Melbourne restaurant in late March. Seven women from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spoke to us about human rights, politics and gender issues— their frustrations, their break-throughs, their vision for the future and the organisations they’d established. We listened, we compared notes and we learnt so much—it was a dialogue in the true meaning of the word: Australian Muslim women, non-Muslim friends and visiting Arab women, our own form of ‘solidarity Down Under’. The point was made—once again—that Arab women and Australian Muslim women can speak for themselves.
Many of the Melbourne Muslim women came from our visitors’ homelands and yes, it was a women’s night only but not for any cultural or quasi-religious customs—but because we planned the evening as a gathering of Australian women from NGOs, academia, local government and community organisations. Guests flew in from Perth, Brisbane and Canberra to join us.
This was no formal evening where guests sat glued to their chairs listening to one formal speech after the other and trying to stay awake. Australian Lebanese women were especially vocal when ‘their delegate’ came to speak and everyone cheered the Palestinian speaker’s passion and eloquence on the rights of Palestinians.
The ‘Dialogue’ project was a brilliant concept brought to life by two remarkable Canberran women, Mrs Libby Lloyd and Dr Victoria Mason ably assisted by project manager, Fatima Ali. In this edition of
Sultana, readers have the opportunity to learn more about the Australia-Arab Women’s Dialogue. The profiles of our Arab women visitors reveal a life-long commitment to causes that most Australians read about or watch on television screens usually from a distance—a safe distance. The term ‘activist’ is an apt description of their life’s work.
But closer to home Sultana’s writers remain acutely aware of what is happening in their countries of origin and elsewhere around the world. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s article on the ‘Nakba Law’ details the pain and anguish, and the wide-reaching effects of this law on the indigenous Palestinian population in Israel. Ruby Hamad’s ‘Feminist Interpretation of the Qur’an’ engages the mind and sets all of us thinking. Shakira Hussein’s
New Matilda article ‘A Female Muslim in Parliament’ on the imminent promotion of NSW politician Mehreen Faruqi to the New South Wale’s Parliament raises once again issues about identity, and Muslim views on homosexuality.
Some Australians seem uncomfortable with the term ‘activist’; others wear the label proudly.
The former may prefer the softer, less militant-sounding term ‘advocate’. And in this respect Australian Muslims are no different to their fellow Australians. But whatever tag they choose, they are part of a strong proud tradition of Australian activism stretching back over the years on a range of mostly secular issues: pacifism, unionism, indigenous rights, republicanism, feminism, anti-war campaigns, conservation, euthanasia and many more.
Australian Muslims can be passionate about what is happening in their own country of origin, be it Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, the Middle East or other places, and still be involved with local Australian issues at various levels of government. Unemployment, education, childcare, health, conservation, care of the elderly, concern us all—Muslims worry and participate like everyone else.
Australian Muslims have benefited from forty years of multicultural government policies brought about by strong lobbying and political activism by ethnic organisations (mostly European) in the 1970s and 80s. Today there are strong, vocal, well-funded ethnic organisations, which also provide services and are eligible for government funding. Two strong waves of feminism have resulted in laws against gender discrimination. We have human rights laws and commissions as watchdogs in our democracy. And there is nothing that prevents you from following any religion or sect you choose, or remaining a ‘non-believer’, without fear of a blasphemy law.
We need to go further, yes. Racism and religious hate speech still rear their ugly heads and it’s clear that we have not escaped our racist past …but there are lessons we’ve learnt and continue to learn, despite outcries from a vocal minority trapped in denial but whose every utterance undermines their claims. The White Australia Policy was officially dead and buried in 1972; obviously some people look back at it with nostalgia.
I’m not sure if our delegation of Arab women visitors had the time to fully witness or understand this…I would have liked the opportunity to discuss this with them. At times I sensed that as Muslims they might have thought that their battles and our battles were the same in terms of human rights and women’s issues.
But on a lighter note (and I know I wasn’t alone in noticing this) none of our Arab women visitors wore headscarves. This was in marked contrast to the thirty or forty percent of local Melbourne women on the night.
Again, I’m not sure if our visitors understood that in Australia, women may choose to wear hijab for a number of different reasons including: as a sign of devoutness, or what some women personally believe to be a religious requirement—or as an expression of identity politics—like a T-shirt with a message: ‘Get this mate! I’m Muslim and I’m proud of it!’
As I stood to welcome guests at the Sultana dinner, I suddenly realised that
Sultana’s Dream magazine was two years old—and not a birthday cake in sight! We’d been so busy the last few months we’d forgotten our own short history. Our first edition came out in May 2011 and five editions later, while we are still struggling to find funding, we’re nevertheless happy that the Sultana ‘brand’ has proved popular around Australia and overseas. Thanks to Sultana’s loyal core group and advisory committee for their enthusiasm, commitment and especially for their forbearance of an editor who occasionally lapses into an eccentricity some less kind might label ‘crankiness’. Special thanks to a strong list of talented female writers without whom there would be no
Sultana; we hope their ranks will continue to increase.