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Resilient Women Project tackles religious prejudice

By Mikaela Turner

Prejudice comes in all shapes and sizes, none of them befitting the community which allows them oxygen.

It is something many people experience prejudice on a daily basis, be it racial, sexual, gender, ageist or even religious – and arguably none more so than Muslim women.

The experience for Muslim women is so dire and so frequently felt that a new booklet has been published with the hope of exposing and eradicating the problem.

Titled Resilient Women Project – Muslim Women and their Experiences of Prejudice, the 52-page booklet is the result of five years of research, headed by Synod Interfaith Community Development Officer April Kailahi.

April says when she started her job she wasn’t aware of how prevalent the appalling lived experience of being a Muslim woman in Australia was. But once she became aware of the problem she was determined to address it.

That was easier said than done, however. April soon discovered many Australians don’t like airing their dirty linen, preferring instead to stick with favourable stereotypes championing a welcoming, all-inclusive society.

She also soon discovered that denying the veracity of the stories she was hearing was doubly disheartening.

“To deny someone’s lived experience, especially when it’s such a harrowing one, that broke my heart even more,” April says.

“I just thought ‘how can this be your normal life and why isn’t the wider community talking about this?’.”

To understand more clearly what Muslim women were experiencing, steering committees were formed to organise five community forums, which provided a safe space for women to speak and share their stories. April’s hope was these forums would facilitate a better understanding of the issues and, equally importantly, identify possible strategies to tackle them.

Many women spoke at the workshops where there was a feeling of community solidarity.  The stories did not make for easy listening, however. Here is just a sample:

“At a tram stop, a man was talking on the phone, saying ‘I have this towel-head next to me who has a bomb under her headscarf because that is what they do. She is probably going to blow us all up’.”

“Someone refused to serve me at a shop and a swastika was painted on my fence.”

“Three of us were on a tram and a group of young men said ‘which one of these girls should we rape tonight’?”

“One woman began screaming at me saying I have to go back where I came from and she needed to join the Australian army to protect Australians from Muslims.”

“I am constantly worried about my children being subjected to violence. My daughter is now taking her head scarf off for fear of violence. It makes me feel powerless and anxious.”

April says the women appreciated seeing that “other people actually cared”, that they had given up their time to come and listen.

“That was the most important thing,” she says. “It was an amazing feeling, coming together. At the end of our workshops, people were pumped up and felt this notion of resilience.”

The workshops showed that prejudice was being experienced in all levels of society – in workplaces, the public sphere and even within the police force

“Women would tell us they went to the police but got fobbed off,” she says. “Even a highly educated person with English as a first language would struggle to go to the police.

“One participant said ‘I have been in situations where I have been made to feel like I am on trial – I don’t want to talk because they treat me badly’.”

However, Victoria Police are aware of many of these issues and have committed to improve relationships between police and community.

April hopes the report will encourage people to make change, starting from within.

“Resilient people need resilient communities; we all have the right to live free from fear and flourish. However, to do that we need to address our own prejudices,” she says.

Click here to download a copy of The Resilient Women Project.

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