harassment · hijab · human rights · islam · women · women's rights

French beach burqini ban as featured in Daily Life

I love the beach. I live right near one and as the weather warms up, there is nothing more glorious than walking the golden shores and sinking into the cool water. But it hasn’t always been a comfortable fit. The beach always seemed to be a white people place, like the fictional Home and Away, filled with chiselled blonde bodies, far away from Sydney’s western suburbs where I grew up.

I remember awkward outings as a kid to the coast with waddling Aunties in voluminous shalwar kameez who would lift their loose shalwar to dip a foot in the water before running away to eat pakoras. We ethnics were no good at water things and especially for girls, it was never encouraged. On the other side of the equation, hairless bikini babes only please.

burqini top stories
When the Cronulla riots broke out in Australia in 2005 it seemed to confirm the metaphor of the beach as a kind of cultural battleground welcome only to a certain kind of person; the last glorious Anglo frontier against the dreaded Muslims. The riots have been endlessly analysed through the lens of race, with gender in the background. Most of the rioters were young white men going mad in a kind of macho posturing over women and property centred around protecting “our things” (white women, beach) from “them” (the not white, strangely clad interlopers). This in itself reflected a problematic male entitlement that gets to dictate the norms and responds with violence at perceived infringements of power.

Then the ‘burqini’ came along. The burqini was an ingenious Australian invention that facilitated swimming for conservative women who observe Muslim modesty guidelines. Some of my good friends are burqini babes. They are lawyers and academics, mums and corporate executives, some are even swimming instructors.
In 2006, Mecca Laalaa became the first burqini-clad Muslim woman in Australia to become a lifeguard, trailblazing a road for Muslim women to not only participate but own the surf. It reminds me of the last scene in Puberty Blues, a coming of age story of teen girls set in the 1970’s Sydney Shire, when the girls decide to go from being spectator eye candy to grabbing surf boards and diving into the ocean against cries of the astonished boys yelling “chicks don’t surf”.

And it’s not just Muslim women who want to surf in these suits – the exquisite Nigella Lawson once famously sported a burqini for sun protection. For those who want to remain fair and lovely or don’t feel comfortable with the body beautiful display otherwise required on the beach, various forms of the suit gives freedom to frolic with joyous abandon. All good right? Wrong.

A swimsuit that encourages those of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds to participate, have agency and be physically active and comfortable should be a win for all women right? Wrong again.

In France, anyway. The French mayor of Corsica has reportedly become the third in the country to announce a ban on burqinis, following weekend clashes fuelled by a row over the outfit, sparked by a man incensed over a photo taken of one of his party – a burqini clad woman.

The oddly named French Women’s Rights Minister failed to oppose the move, having previously spoken against the “archaic” garment. Now these women who were perhaps even braving the disapproval of the more conservative in their own community will be back to watching from the shoreline. They will be exactly where the right wing French and Muslim fundamentalists like them to be, on the sidelines – all in the name of their freedom and dignity of course.

I’m sure the ban will be a liberating experience for the Minister; because banning things and policing a woman’s access to the public space is always a great celebration of freedom and a good answer to male violence. Vive la France!
Once again, it is women who pay the price and are the pawns used in the cultural battleground between knuckleheaded men and the wider violence of a male dominated state apparatus. An apparatus that echoes the values of those in power, with the faint whiff of former European colonial overlords straining to accord equal status to the subjects they once ruled over.

The message is clear; your belonging here is conditional, engage only our terms or not at all.

The ban is an attack on minority communities, already subject to increased surveillance and harassment, who occupy the very bottom of the social hierarchy; and its most vulnerable members – Muslim women.

Women who not only have to navigate sexism within their communities, but also the brute force of state authorities intent on crushing their autonomy – and rendering the men in their lives humiliated and impotent against these incursions. All for ‘freedom’, in the most Orwellian sense of the word.

This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life website on August 17, 2016.


human rights · islam · sexuality · spirituality

What’s it like to be gay and Muslim? As featured in The Saturday Paper

For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Picture: Flickr/ Billy Simon
For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Picture: Flickr/ Billy Simon

Gay Muslims in the West can face lack of acceptance within their families and their religion, as well as experiencing wider prejudice against their faith, fostering a complex and contradictory identity.

The first thing you notice about Sol Alliya Yoga is her gold sparkly fingernails. Her painted hands flutter to her face when her eyes become animated, reaching reflexively to comb through her dark cropped hair.

It’s been two months since Sol left her parent’s home in Punchbowl in Sydney’s south-west after her family struggled to come to terms with her homosexuality.

One night during Ramadan when her family was out for the nightly tarawih prayer, she packed her bags and called her friend to pick her up from her family’s home.

Sol, whose family hails from Indonesia, remembers the moment as a period of high anxiety but also exhilaration.

“I have stuff in the back, stuff in my lap and my heart is just beating really, really fast in the tiny Prius.”

For gay Muslims in the West the heartbreak of navigating sexuality is exacerbated by the complexities of religious and racial identity. Not only can they experience rejection from their communities, but also Islamophobia from the wider society, as well as feeling alienated from a gay subculture that exalts Anglo aesthetics and experiences.

“Why do you even like them anymore?”

Sol’s parents found out about her same-sex attraction after reading her diary.

Although Indonesian culture is open towards sexual minorities, where pop culture is saturated with openly gay and transgender celebrities, Sol’s conservative parents refused to accept their daughter was attracted to women.

Punchbowl is Australia’s Muslim heartland. Sol studied at the local private Malek Fahd Islamic School. Her parents regularly attended lectures of controversial Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir and carefully monitored Sol’s friends and movements.

After the diary incident, her parents took her to a Muslim psychologist who promised to perform “gay conversion therapy” and “cure” Sol.

“She told me how she converts all these gay people, and she’s like, I can quote: ‘Even people from Canberra drive all the way here so I can stop them from being gay.’ ”

After three sessions, Sol refused to continue with the therapy, but still clings to her Muslim identity and is open to a relationship with her estranged family.

She says there is an assumption that gay Muslims from migrant families automatically drop their cultural identities when moving in their wider “liberated West” circles.

“I find it so strange when people say once you leave your family you drop them forever and can live your own life,” she says.

Mainstream gay culture often fails to acknowledge the challenges faced by gay people of colour in navigating family relationships, faith and racism, Sol says.

“They really just don’t understand how strong the familial bond is with us. They just don’t get it. Like, why would you ever think about going back? Why do you even like them anymore?”

“Do you still love me?”

For another Muslim woman in Sydney – whom I will call Sana – carving out a space for herself in the queer Muslim narrative is a continuing struggle.

A self-confessed book nerd, she devours American Muslim reformist thinkers such as scholar Scott Kugle, feminist Amina Wadud and gay imam Daayiee Abdullah, all of whom advocate for queer inclusion from a pro-faith perspective.

“I couldn’t understand how a God I understood as loving would be so cruel to one segment of the population, especially if they can’t really change that,” Sana says.

For Sana, the internet has also been a refuge, a way to connect with other young people struggling to navigate a world of shame and secrecy. From Twitter to secret Facebook and Yahoo groups, online communities have allowed young gay Muslims to reach out to each other and talk about spirituality, identity and politics.

The 22-year-old acknowledges her road to coming out has been easier than for other young Muslims, who have been forced to leave home or live painful double lives.

“My experiences were nothing like people who have been kicked out of home and have nowhere to go, or others who were getting into marriages of convenience,” Sana says.

Growing up in the Sutherland Shire in Sydney’s south with an unconventional mixed-culture Indian-Chinese-Malay background gave Sana and her 17-year-old brother a sense of freedom. Unmoored from what can be cloistered ethnic and religious communities, she was spared some of the ostracism experienced by others, but she admits missing the sense of solidarity such groups engender.

Sana’s liberal family always encouraged her and her brother to question and engage with faith, but she admits to still feeling nervous in revealing her sexuality.

She remembers breathing heavily when, at 19, she sat down to tell her parents. She recalls her father’s shocked face and the silence.

“It felt like eternity waiting for the reply. I think my first question was, ‘Do you still love me?’ Then my mum hugged me.”

She says the challenge is compounded by an exclusivist gay scene.

“I felt like they catered to white people or I had to constantly justify why I believe in God.”

Sana, uninterested in the mainstream gay scene centred around bars and clubs, dreams of meeting the right girl in a book reading or knitting club. But she says dating can be difficult in a world where she feels neither fully accepted in gay or Muslim circles.

“It’s still upsetting to know that you can’t really be yourself. You have to live as if your identities are mutually exclusive.”

“Just be proud of who you are.”

Ahmad found losing his religion both liberating and frightening. The 25-year-old says social and family ostracism played a large part in feeling he had no place as a gay man in Muslim circles.

Ahmad  still remembers posting a Facebook profile picture with his partner and being the source of gossip.

Like Sol, Ahmad grew up in Sydney’s south-west, in Lakemba, among a large Muslim community. His religious Malaysian-born family placed a premium on Islamic education. At 20, some time after graduating from Malek Fahd, Ahmad went to Syria to study Arabic. It was there, he says, that a shift began.

He went to the Middle East anticipating a renewal in his religious zeal. Instead, what he found in Syria inspired him to take the road he had never imagined he would take – that of living as an openly gay man.

“I was expecting to go the Middle East and find the most religious people. Instead it was regular people figuring their life out,” he says.

The experience made him rethink his relationship with his faith and explore his gay identity. No longer feeling compelled to live a painful life fearing he would somehow give himself away – self-conscious of his demeanour and whether things he said “sounded gay” – Ahmad finally felt he could be free to be himself.

But the revelation did not come without a cost.

“I feel like I lost something,” he says. “I lost that certainty that comes with my religion.”

Growing up, Ahmad understood being gay was taboo. Homophobic comments were rife. He heard of gruesome punishments for “sodomites”, who were to be thrown off cliffs onto spikes for their transgressions.

“One day you get the realisation that all of that is you. That entire bag of homophobia falls on your head,” he says.

Even after his father found gay porn on his computer as a teen, his reaction was to pretend it never existed.

“I always thought I’d be a good Muslim boy. I’ll marry a woman and go through the mechanics of it,” Ahmad says.

But the double life, the stress and the pretending became too much.

Ahmad says family is still integral to his life, despite the tension his homosexuality causes. He now lives on campus at his university and has even brought his ex-partner home for Eid.

“I never imagined in a thousand years I would do something like that.”

He says the challenge for gay Muslims facing places where they experience rejection begins first with finding a place to celebrate and honour the beauty of being different.

“Just be proud of who you are.”


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This article was originally published in The Saturday Paper . Read the original article here. Subscribe to this excellent paper here.

human rights · islam · media · racism · religion

Stop the dog whistling on radicalisation, Minister- as featured in ABC’s The Drum

Muslims are framed as a ‘problem to be solved’ by political leaders. Picture: Flickr/ Brian Jeffery Beggarly.

Andrew Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation, but his framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved isn’t helping one bit, writes Sarah Malik.

My phone is exploding with Happy Eid! texts.

Except it’s not Eid. Not for me at least.

The texts are mainly from my well-meaning white friends who have watched Eid celebrations at Lakemba mosque on Channel Nine.

I’m celebrating the next day, like half the rest of the state’s Muslims. The old school method of marking the end of Ramadan involves waiting to see the arc of the new moon indicating the beginning of the lunar month as opposed to the fixed scientific calendar method.

This is one of the million fine details of the complex and diverse Muslim communities who hail from dozens of varied cultures and strains, but are forced into a uniformity by an external culture that imposes modes of understanding aligned with its own understandings of religious ritual, politics and practice.

Chief among these is the myth of a unified and Vatican-like leadership hierarchy Andrew Robb seems to be appealing to in his demands on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night that Muslim leaders pull in their radicalised youth.

One of the great attractions of Sunni Islam is the lack of hierarchical or mediating priest-class, with a focus on the individual’s direct relationship to God.

Sure there are imams who lead prayer, and scholars who have spent years nutting out points of law, and an axis of orthodoxy most mainstream leaders are guided by. Beyond that, leaders are made more by their following and popularity rather than anointed by overarching councils or bodies.

This makes things difficult for politicians like Mr Robb, who needs someone to cop the flak for the rash of young nutcases running to the Middle East.

When it’s young Muslim men, the community is expected to take responsibility.

Only when it’s a young white male like Jake Bilardi, there is a recognition of the risk faced by young, isolated people with complex personal compulsions and histories that make them vulnerable to the call of extremism.

There is a barrage of material trying to understand the lure of militancy. Is it the search for belonging? Alienation and marginalisation? Anger at foreign intervention in the Muslim world? The promise of an Islamic golden age utopia in the face of political humiliation? Sex and kittens? The internet? An outlet for existing criminal tendencies, or just a way to escape the tedium of ordinary life?

One thing remains clear, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all approach to the trajectory of these lone and few individuals who often leave behind their own baffled and distraught families and communities.

These few individuals rarely interact with mainstream leaders or mosques. Like most young people, not just Muslims, traditional religious authorities (read: old people) have failed to connect with the millennials’ quest for meaning in a changing social media world.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

The internet, like most things, is a reflection of the people who use it.

Social media provides communities for minorities rarely given a voice in the mainstream. Hamza Yusuf and Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan are among a spate of celebrity sheikhs that have connected online with global youth audiences.

They successfully market a homegrown western Islam, that despite their detractors is grounded in the world migrant kids can understand and for all its conservatism generally stress political participation and integration.

Mr Robb wants quick fixes and easy answers for the problem of radicalisation.

There is one simple one that I can offer free of charge.

The constant framing of the “Muslim” as a problem to be solved by politicians and media who use these communities to whip up ratings and dog whistle politics is a disgrace. It is far disproportionate to any risks posed.

It only adds to the genuine anguish of Muslim communities struggling against a small but virulent association of extremism with the added burden of racial aggression and hysteria.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-22/malik-stop-the-dog-whistling-on-radicalisation-minister/6411074).

ASIO · islam · terrorism

How many times must a Muslim apologise, before you can call him a moderate Muslim? -as featured in ABC’s The Drum

My latest piece in ABC’s The Drum on the recent terror raids and the controversy around Senator Jacqui Lambie’s comments. Let me know what you think! If you’re confused by my headline it’s a play on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the wind’ :p

UPDATE: Breaking news- One dead, two stabbed in Endeavour Hills.

How many times must Muslim “moderates” distance themselves from the atrocities of people who call themselves Muslim but who so often demonstrate a feeble understanding of the faith? 

The recent terror raids in which 800 police officers were needed to charge four men was reminiscent of an episode of Homeland, while our political leaders appear to be enthusiastically beating the drums of war with rhetoric that will only inflame community tensions.

And it hasn’t taken Jacqui Lambie long to jump on the hysteria bandwagon.

Senator Lambie’s nonsensical outburst equating sharia law – a set of ever-evolving legal precepts by which Muslims live – with terrorism was staggering in its ignorance, as was her assertion that those who get “mixed up” in it should “pack their bags and get out of the country”.

For most Muslims – especially Muslim migrants in the West who sought to escape the legal dysfunction of their home countries – sharia is about the religious rituals that regulate personal matters like fasting, charity, praying, finance and family life.

This understanding of sharia is a far cry from the gruesome images that have recently dominated headlines.

By equating Muslim practice with terrorism, Lambie casts suspicion on the vast majority of ordinary, law-abiding Muslims. In fact, UK Huffington Post political director Mehdi Hasan cites research suggesting a proper understanding of sharia could actually work to combat radicalism. Hasan notes that wannabe jihadists are rarely motivated by religious fervour, and in fact tend to live unIslamic lifestyles:

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies.

You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement … instead they (experts) point to other drivers of radicalisation: moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose.

One of the Sydney men in custody, Omarjan Azari, allegedly conspired with Kings Cross nightclub bouncer Mohammad Baryalei (who had appeared as an actor in Underbelly: The Golden Mile) to commit random public beheadings. They are hardly models for Islamic piety.

This doesn’t matter to Lambie. In the world according to Lambie, it’s not enough to reject extremism – the only way for Muslims to show their allegiance is to reject their adherence to sharia practices altogether. It furthers the feeling among Muslims that no condemnation, no disavowal, no distancing will ever be enough.

Muslims are obligated to apologise for every atrocity committed anywhere on Earth by anyone who calls themselves Muslim, in a way that is not expected of any other group. There is that constant refrain, “When will the moderates stand up?”

Every mainstream Islamic organisation in Australia and around the world has sent out press releases condemning the wanton killing of civilians. The efforts of Muslim communities to create bridges are tireless, from Twitter campaigns like #notinmyname, to UK Imams against ISIS, but they rarely make headlines.

This is the moment our leaders need to step up, to use the language of inclusion to get minority communities on board and to reassure them of their place in Australia. But instead we have had gung-ho Captain Tony with his own version of “with us or against us”.

We are told that no dissenters will be tolerated in the creepy cult-sounding ‘Team Australia’, which implies a suspicion of those not perceived to be onboard Team Groupthink. When our political leaders fan the flames of division, vandals and Islamophobes almost get tacit approval – it sends a message that some citizens are worth more than others, and deserve our disapprobation.

Beefed-up terrorism laws, graffitied mosques and cars, threatening letters and angry political rhetoric has made Muslim communities in all their diversity feel increasingly under siege, ironically fuelling the kind of alienation that sees young people fall into the arms of radicals.

The fact that street abuse and harassment has prompted communities to set up self-reporting mechanisms like Facebook’s National Islamophobia Register, rather than go to police, is a testament to the level of distrust between minority communities and the authorities that are meant to protect all citizens.

In this climate, what arguments can Muslim community leaders use to sway young men who could fall victim to the siren call of radicalism, and those who use Muslim victimisation and discrimination as a rallying call to disengage?

I am not saying the risk of terrorism in Australia isn’t real. But the spectacle of the Federal Government’s response to perceived threats – the rhetoric and ballast and heavy performance of power – risks sending people underground while alienating the very communities that could assist.

This performance around security points to a kind of politics of fear that is depressingly familiar in Australian politics, and is reminiscent of the Government’s treatment of asylum seekers.

The best way to shore up an unpopular government is to summon up something else for voters to fear and hate, so that we can turn to daddy with gratitude for rescuing us. If this means trashing decades of goodwill built up in our pluralistic society and smashing a few civil liberties on the way, then so be it.

This article was originally published on ABC’s The Drum (http://www.abc.net.au/thedrum). Read the original article here http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/malik-a-real-understanding-of-sharia/5763376.