After a recent visit to Newcastle’s Mosque I was invited to take my family to the Newcastle Eid al-Adha celebrations. I took the opportunity to try and bust a few myths about being a Muslim woman by asking a group of them to tell their own stories over vast quantities of cakes and sweets.
Diana Rah is the vice-president of the Newcastle Muslim Association and I joined her along with a small circle of Muslim women as she explained the celebrations underway at the University of Newcastle.
“We have two Eids each year; one is Eid al-Fitr and that’s the celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramandan, and we have this second celebration which is Eid al-Adha, this is a time that Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage, the pilgrimage to Mecca.”
“As Muslims, and you can see that we’re from so many different cultural backgrounds, our God is the God of all and we send, on this day especially, our best wishes to everyone from every race culture and religion.”
The group of women gathered to chat on this warm Saturday look like a tiny United Nations. Diana points out that there are 28 countries represented among the families busy with barbeques, conversations and children swarming over the jumping castle.
This small group of women, amongst other things, includes a dentist, a science student and a fitness instructor.
There are many questions I want to ask them, but firstly I want to know how they feel in the Newcastle community, given the broad discussion of all things Muslim at the moment – and not much of it positive.
Despeana has lived in the Hunter all of her life, and is not a Muslim by birth, or marriage.
“Newcastle has always been a lovely place to live in, I’ve noticed that some of the sisters have mentioned to me that they’re a little bit concerned about stepping out on their own.”
“I came into Islam as a choice, prior to finding out about Islam in 2002 I had no idea who Muslims were. I became involved with the Muslim community and discovered what beautiful people they are and I became one of them because of the love I felt here.”
“I don’t see what all the hype is about, I don’t understand it, but now we, and me myself are in a position that we feel threatened.”
Avelina doesn’t actually wear a veil, “I don’t normally wear a veil, my husband would like me to I’m sure but he’s happy with me to not wear a veil. It’s up to me 100 percent and he supports that decision.”
Avelina says when she has worn hijab in public she has always felt safe and hasn’t experienced any problems, but she does say she notices how people behave when she is out in public with her mother-in-law who does wear hijab, “When I walk with my mother-in-law who wears a hijab I often see people – she doesn’t notice, I notice – if anyone was to approach I would definitely say something.”
“I think people just need to realise it’s (hijab) part of who we are and whether we wear it or not it doesn’t make us any different.”
Avelina is a fitness instructor who works in women’s gyms and with children in schools and relates what is probably a common experience.
“I was actually in the gym doing my own workout and waiting for the class to start when the lady next to me commented on the stories in the news, “It’s terrible what’s happening with these terrorists around our country,” she said. I asked what she meant and she said, “These Muslims, they’re taking over and the women are wearing burqas and they’re scary and they frighten me.”
I said, “I’m a Muslim, do I frighten you?’ and she said, ‘No, I don’t mean you, I mean like those other Muslims!’ I explained to her that we’re all the same, that we might wear hijab or burqa and that I don’t but that we’re no different. She was shocked.”
There has been a prominent social media campaign over the last week or so called #WISH – Women in Solidarity with Hijabis – in which non-Muslim women are sharing photos of themselves wearing hijab.
There has also been some criticism of #WISH so I sought the opinion of the Muslim women I had in front of me – what do they think of it, is it offensive?
Unanimously the women assured me that it wasn’t seen as offensive. Indeed Diana Rah thinks women are doing an excellent job with #WISH, “No-one in our community is offended by it, we actually feel very supported by it and we love them for it.”
Dalia agrees, “I believe this is very supportive, you should try it yourself and see how the Muslim woman feels.” I assured her I did on my visit to Newcastle’s Mosque a week ago but that I got hot and sweaty.
Dalia says women at her gym often express concern about her being too hot, but she laughs, “I’m used to it! They keep telling me, ‘You must be very hot’, and I understand but when you’ve been wearing it for years you get used to it.”
Gym instructor, Avelina, “I can’t imagine (wearing it at the gym). I get so sweaty and so hot, even my hair I wish I could cut it all off let alone wear a scarf! I admire every woman who wears a scarf, their faces just glow and they look so beautiful, it’s admirable.”
Farida has come to Newcastle from Cape Town but is originally from Burundi in Central Africa, “I left my country 15 years ago because of the war but I just arrived in Newcastle two years ago.”
Generally the women I spoke with have had mostly good experiences of being Muslim women as members of a minority. Diana Rah says it’s only recently that problems have occurred.
“So far in Newcastle we’ve had a very good relationship with the wider community and we haven’t really ever had these problems that have happened in the last couple of months. I think that they’ve seen that in Newcastle and they do feel safe here but I think there are isolated instances of abuse like verbal abuse and the odd finger (gesture) here and there.”
Farida is concerned that this may change in the current environment, “I hope and we pray very hard that the government must find a solution to see how they’re going to protect the country because Australia is a peace(ful) country. We have the right to choose any religion we want and to wear what we want.”
Dalia has found the recent media discussion of what Muslim women wear to be shocking, “What I’ve known is that Australia is a free country and they support women and I know that the government usually supports women rights. So the idea of discussing what to wear is not what I expected. I wear hijab because I’m a Muslim lady and this is what I believe in. I believe that a women should cover her hair and it shouldn’t be seen by strangers.”
It is often claimed that Muslim women who wear a veil are oppressed. Despeana begs to differ, “No. We are not oppressed. It was my decision to wear the veil. Yes, I decided to become a Muslim in 2002, I wasn’t married at the time, my husband didn’t have a say (in it) – nobody’s pushing me to do this, it was my choice. Yes, it was a bit difficult becoming accustomed to it after being a non-Muslim and not wearing one, but I believe Allah gave me the strength and I just want to please my God. No-one is forcing me to do anything.”
Diana Rah agrees, “There is no compulsion in our religion and wearing a hijab is entirely a woman’s choice. There’s a huge misconception put out by the media and others to say that a women is forced to cover her head by her husband, by her son, her father, whoever, but this is entirely our choice.”
“I had an incident in Beaumont Street last week when we were stopped by two men who wanted to teach us about Christianity. He was very loud and overpowering, very tall and wanted to tell us what he thought about his religion. We accept that because we believe everybody has the right to converse and exchange ideas. But we need to respect each others opinions without becoming angry. He disagreed with something I put forward and then he refused to speak to me further. There is no need to be aggressive. But we need to converse and learn from one another. He was looking to agitate me but I walked away.”
What I have taken away from spending the morning with these women is that, for them, wearing hijab is simply an act of faith – the same as a Christian may choose to wear a crucifix or other religious icon.
If you want to know what a Muslim woman thinks – just ask one!
There is a national Mosque Open Day coming up around Australia on October 25, however the Newcastle Muslim Association will be opening their mosque to the public on Sunday 19 October so as to not clash with state government by-elections in Newcastle and Charlestown.