Muslim dress should be celebrated as a sign of an accepting
society, not seen as a threat, writes Amal Awad.
Whenever the spotlight turns on the Muslim community, it is
usually in relation to a negative act: terrorism, local crime or
accusations of Islamic demagogy. Muslims seem to find themselves at
the centre of every problem - the obscure or negative is magnified
and, like in some grotesque circus show, Muslims become the
Once again, Muslim women's dress, and in particular the hijab,
is under attack. Bronwyn Bishop labelled it an act of defiance, and
then in the same breath opined that women who wear the hijab are as
free as slaves.
Her wording is interesting, as a little more than a week ago I
sat in the audience of Andrew Denton's Enough Rope and
listened to one man tell me and my friends that we thought we were
better than everyone else because we dressed modestly.
"What exactly is it about my headscarf that offends you, sir?" I
Funnily enough, he didn't have an answer, but he did claim that,
of all the migrants to this country, those pesky Muslims just
weren't "good Australians".
It bewilders me that Muslims are singled out more than any other
religious group. Is religion OK only as long as it's the "Astrayan"
way? If so, what constitutes being Australian? More importantly,
where does my freedom begin and where does yours end?
So I ask again: what is it about this dress that alarms people?
I would ask Bishop how on earth she equates covering one's hair
with a form of suffocated freedom. I am not locked in a golden cage
and I am especially thankful that I am not imprisoned by
Yet, understandably, the climate of fear and uncertainty feeds
the prejudice of a minority. It is unfortunate and problematic,
then, that the simplest Islamic practices raise the alarm, as
though a headscarf can lead to violence.
It is worrying when a multicultural society such as Australia's
ushers in an new era of witch-hunts, expecting religious followers
to be apologetic for holding beliefs and engaging in practices that
neither breach any laws nor offend the rights of others.
If Bishop's statements weren't so damaging in their contribution
to a climate of Islamophobia, I would argue that the demonisation
of Islam and its followers has taken on cartoonish qualities.
Who cares that a headscarf does not preclude one from having
interests and goals, and an intelligent mind to pursue them? These
are all minor details on the path to creating a homogenous brand of
secularism that promotes a single idea of what it means to be
Australian, or even a "moderate" version of Islam that does not
Quite simply, Muslims see the world through a spiritual prism,
and it leads us to make lifestyle choices that veer away from the
norm at times. While this creates curiosity, there is no need for
fear. Therefore, time and again, the ordinariness of Muslims is
emphasised in a bid to affirm our normality.
It is deeply disturbing that in 2005 a woman should be
criticised for choosing to wear a hijab after the hard work that
has gone into fostering stronger community ties. A woman should be
free to wear a headscarf without fear of censure or prejudice. That
is what freedom in Australia is about.
Yet it would be a questionable kind of freedom that acknowledges
a woman's right to wear a bikini but rejects another's right to
It is heartening to see that in a recent poll in a national
newspaper, more than 70 per cent of the 5000-plus respondents said
that the hijab should not be banned. Let us keep working, then, so
that Australia continues to grow as a society where a
well-educated, English-speaking woman wearing a hijab is no longer
a novelty, but is as normal as a crucifix-wearing woman in an
Amal Awad is an executive member of the Australian Muslim
Civil Rights Advocacy Network.
Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 2005