Solidarity Isn’t Enough: Australia Needs To Hear More Muslim Voices

'Solidarity' is nice in theory, but it amounts to nothing more than playing dress-up for kicks.

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In most foyers you expect to find smiling receptionists, gentle music and glossy magazines. Stepping into a local halfway house recently for a story I was writing, I had to make to do with a shirtless man.

He had a beer can in one hand and a leash in the other, attached to the camel-sized dog he was walking up and down. The first thing he said to me was, “Where are you from?”

This question always flummoxes me. It could refer to anything: Suburb, state, media outlet? But I had a sneaking suspicion that he meant something more insidious.

“Australia” was my instinctive answer. And it’s true. I was born here, raised here, and have spent the majority of my life here, usually stuck on public transport (which is paid for with my tax dollars). My accent is full-on ‘Straya. That my parents immigrated from Morocco, or that I spent my formative years in an Islamic school, are incidental facts.

The shirtless bloke looked confused, and he isn’t the only one. “Guess the Background!” is a fun game people often play when we’re first introduced. To their undiscerning eyes, I’m Turkish, Spanish, Iranian… anything but a born-and-bred Melbourne girl.

It should be light-hearted, but all it really does is reinforce my feelings of Otherness. Often, when I answer that I am Australian, strangers entreat: “No, no, but where are you from?’ — as if my Australian passport is temporary, or my birthplace a mistake. As if I have to justify my citizenship to them. I smile tightly, and often resolve to never speak to whoever it is again.

But this prevailing feeling of not belonging is the least of our worries right now. There are mosques being vandalised, attacks being documented and the complicity of the media as raids are carried out, with shocking officer-to-arrests ratios.

Tony Abbott gave a statement today about the burqa, which is cold comfort to Muslims everywhere: “I’ve said before that I find it a fairly confronting form of attire. Frankly I wish it was not worn. But we are a free country, we are a free society, and it’s not the business of government to tell people what they should and shouldn’t wear.” Statements like this, from those in power, ensure that those who wear it will continue to be targeted – not only by those who respond to the dog-whistle politics, but also by the misguided few who are engaging in a form of egregious cultural tourism known as ‘solidarity.’

A Courier-Mail journalist recently donned a niqab for the day, an exercise which on the surface, sounds well-intentioned. “I have no prejudices against any religion over another, but in the end I thought it would give an insight into a garment which has proven so divisive,” Tanya Smart wrote in her piece, accompanied of course by glimpses of her white skin, long eyelashes and veiled face.

There’s an easier way to gain insight into what it’s like wearing hijabs, burqas and niqabs: ask someone who actually wears them, full-time.

There’s an easier way to gain insight into what it’s like wearing hijabs, burqas and niqabs: ask someone who actually wears them, full-time. Ask them for their opinions and insights, and actually give them weight, rather than prioritising white experiences.

Ask someone who is a moving target, every day, who faces threats and violence for the choices they make. Ask someone who is in danger, and listen to what they have to say.

Tanya Smart took off the niqab (which was mistakenly referred to in the captions as a “burqa”), and returned to being the white, middle-class journalist that she is every day. Women posting ‘solidarity’ photos of themselves wearing the hijab can, in the time it takes to bang out 140 characters, pop off their scarves and melt back into their ordinary lives. Even the upcoming Wear a Scarf Day threatens to trivialise what life really is like for the women who wear it, beyond that quick and easy calendar day.

The Courier-Mail‘s tasteless social experiment exemplifies Australia’s ingrained racial problems. Rather than giving valuable column inches to genuine and meaningful experiences, the newspaper chose instead to portray “Life under the Muslim veil” by someone who is not Muslim and seems to have no understanding of context and history. It is as insulting and inappropriate as slathering blackface on in the Outback, to approximate Indigenous living.

Last year, I wrote a small piece for a publication about my experiences as a journalism student, which was picked up by a popular news blog. Most of the comments were either positive or nitpicking, but one stood out for sounding like a school report. “Aicha isn’t off to a terrific start given her name looks like its misspelled when it isn’t. Anyone whose name makes you immediately want to yell out: Can I buy a vowel? I’d like to solve it!’ is not to cut out to write for a living… Or ARE they?”

Reading it back, I actually  feel lucky. I am lucky that, as a Muslim woman who does not wear the hijab, I am most often annoyed at the ignorance of others, rather than threatened. I am needled by strangers who think it’s funny to guess at my ethnicity, and frustrated by an industry which pays lip service to diversity while making no real move to push white men off the front pages. I am annoyed, but not afraid.

The gratitude I feel for this is pathetic, because even if it’s not me, it is the woman in Coburg North. Maybe tomorrow it will be my mother, or my best friend. Islamophobia is real, and approximating how it feels via cheap social experiments is not good enough. ‘Solidarity’ is nice in theory, but it amounts to nothing more than playing dress-up for kicks. Hijabs, burqas and niqabs are more than props.

I grew up eating fairy bread, aching for Safeway toys and singing ‘Advance Australia Fair’ every day at school assembly, but my face and name still mark me as different. It will take decades to break down Australia’s shamefully racist attitudes. There needs to be a genuine attempt to engage with the Muslim community, beyond trying to “feel” our pain or speak for us. This problem has existed long before the first dawn raids last month, and will continue if there is no concerted effort to change.

We need to hear Muslim voices on the radio, read their bylines, and see Muslim faces on television, beyond the token guest or two on Q&A. We already contend with extremists committing their perfidy in our name, and suffer for it. Now we must banish the weak, half-baked attempts to understand us, and make ourselves understood.

Solidarity is not enough — Australia needs to take Muslim experiences from Muslims, without fear or favour.

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance journalist in Melbourne. She’s on Twitter at @aichamarhfour

Feature image by Christopher Furlong for Getty.