Discrimination still felt in Australia
A Human Rights Commission report has found racial discrimination is still common around Australia Fairfax's Judith Ireland explains.PT1M57S 620 349
Over the past year, women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them, had hot coffee thrown in their face, told to leave an entertainment venue, assaulted and thrown off a train, verbally intimidated, had their cars vandalised and have been forced to restrict their public movements out of fear.
Some of these incidents took place in the presence of children. Some victims were heavily pregnant. Some victims complained that passers-by and witnesses failed to intervene. All of the victims were left traumatised – the experiences haunting them, each and every time they hear of yet another incident similar to theirs.
These women all have one thing in common.
"Over the past year, [Muslim] women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them." Photo: Ian Waldie
And no, they are not the victims of a domestic violence epidemic.
These women just happen to be Australian Muslims, many of them who have chosen to display their faith publicly by wearing a hijab or on some occasions, a niqab. This is their only 'crime'.
Despite being part of the world's second largest faith group, Muslim women in all parts of the Western world are singled out and targeted daily by those who continue to extrapolate the criminal actions of a minority to the entire 1.6+ billion followers of Islam.
A woman holds a placard during a previous anti-racism protest in Federation Square where Reclaim Australia, a community group, staged an anti-Islam rally at the same time. Photo: Getty Images
The fear, both debilitating and real, has been so great at times that citizens have taken it upon themselves to offer to escort Australian Muslim women in the aftermath of incidents which result in an inevitable backlash against Muslims.
Although groundswell movements like #Illridewithyou have helped cushion the backlash somewhat, the inevitable reality remains that being 'visibly Muslim' (or even 'remotely Muslim' in the online world) puts you at higher risk of being the victim of an islamophobic incident.
What's more disturbing is that when I've sought to speak out about Islamophobia, in addition to many expressing concern, a rather alarming number of people expressly engage in victim blaming.
Mariam Veiszadeh founded the Islamophobia Register in 2014. Photo: Supplied
Having launched the Islamophobia Register late last year, a platform that collates incidents of Islamophobia across Australia, and having spoken directly to countless victims over the past year, I've witnessed first hand the absolutely terrifying impact the experiences have left on victims and their loved ones.
I often find myself playing the role of an investigator, legal advisor, counsellor, advocate and social worker. Having experienced long drawn out episodes of cyber bullying and near constant online hate myself, I find myself re-living my own anguish each time I speak to them.
As an advocate seeking to amplify the voices of victims of Islamophobia, I myself have become the target. I've been bestowed with the honour of becoming every Islamophobes' favourite poster child.
It was these very experiences that I reflected upon, as well as highlighting the inadequacies in the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), in my address to the Australian Human Rights Commission, at its 40 years of the RDA Conference in February this year.
I specifically spoke about the fact that despite the alarming increase in the frequency and severity of incidents of Islamophobia, Australian Muslims were still not afforded adequate protection under Federal laws.
In NSW, which houses the largest percentage of Australian Muslims, legal protections would only apply, as an example, if one was abused as an "effing Lebanese Muslim" as opposed to an "effing Muslim" because clearly bigots pause to reflect on one's ethnicity before letting loose. This same imposition is not required where Australian Jewish and Sikh communities are concerned.
We know that religion is often used as a pretext for what is, in reality, race discrimination. And the whole 'I ain't racist because Islam is not a race' argument is getting old and is frankly, a cop out!
I'm sick of hearing the absurd argument that unless I condemn repeatedly and ad nauseam the atrocious acts committed by every Mahmoud, Abdul or Ahmed, I cannot speak out about acts committed against Zahra, Sara and Aisha.
What concerns me is the double standards, anomalies and contradictions embedded in anti-discrimination laws, which leads to ridiculously unjust but perfectly legal decisions whereby, for a complaint against similar offences when religion is not a protected attribute, a Jewish person can obtain protection while a Muslim cannot.
The National Consultation Report on the 40th anniversary of the RDA released by the Australian Human Rights Commission last week echos what many in the community, myself included, have been saying for a while - that Australian Muslim, whilst having to endure increased levels of biased motivated vilification and discrimination, have at best, "limited protection" under the RDA as religion is not a protected attribute and Islam is not considered an "ethno-religion" (unlike Judaism).
Legal experts are now calling on the Federal Government to consider how to better protect Australian Muslims.
The cynic in me thinks that it's tough to imagine that there's a huge amount of capital to be gained by any of the major political parties to consider legislating on this issue as they'd be effectively sticking their neck out for one of the most 'disliked' segments of the broader community – Australian Muslims.
I recognise the rather tricky intersection between race and religion and the complexities associated with legislating on what is perceived as a non-biological trait – religion.
I note however that some academics are mounting the argument that increasing levels of Islamophobia in Australia has sped up a process of "ethnicisation" of the Australian Muslim community.
There have been suggestions that given that there is next to none political appetite to go down the legislative reform route, that perhaps a more realistic approach to secure legal protections would be for an impacted member of the Australian Muslim community to commence litigation to test the relevant provisions of the RDA or its state equivalents before a court ('a test case').
This might be a viable option but given sky rocketing legal expenses and the drawn out legal battle that would ensue, not to mention the potential associated trauma that one would have to endure – how realistic is this option? I know this because, given that I've been racially and religiously vilified myself, I have considered mounting my own 'test case'.
In 2012, a proposed a draft bill, which sought to merge and simplify five existing anti-discrimination laws, including the RDA was shelved. More recently, some have floated the idea of a Multicultural Act.
Perhaps its time we commenced a national debate about how best to address these issues which, if left unaddressed can have significant broader and long-term implications.
It's apparent that there are various options available – most seem to be lacking a vital ingredient however – political willpower.