art · racism · women · women's rights

‘A personal attack on Muslim women’: Ms Saffaa mural defaced in Melbourne as featured in the Guardian

Leading story on Guardian Australia's Culture page.
Leading story on Guardian Australia’s Culture page.

A Melbourne street-art mural featuring a Muslim feminist protest paste-up by prominent artist and activist Ms Saffaa has been defaced in an act of vandalism the artist has labeled a “personal attack on Muslim women”.

Featuring pictures of well-known Saudi activists and artists, women in headscarves, Saudi poetry and a pink stencilling of the words “radical Muslim”, the mural was defaced on Saturday night, with the faces of the women blacked out and the words painted over.

The defaced mural. Picture: Hana Assafiri.

Ms Saffaa collaborated on the mural with a handful of emerging and well-known female artists, including the American writer and artist Molly Crabapple. Saffaa said she believed the vandalism was fuelled by a political climate of rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

“I almost wanted to cry … it’s quite disheartening,” said Saffaa, a Saudi-Australian artist. She expected the work to be tagged by other street or graffiti artists, but says the extensive defacing had more aggressive overtones.

The self-funded work, which went up in December, took months of preparation and ten eight-hour days to complete, she said.

 “I feel like it’s not just an attack on me but them too,” she said, referring to the Saudi women represented in her work. “What do I tell these women? You have to fight the misogynist men back home and the Islamophobic racist bigots in this country?”

The mural forms part of the #iammyownguardian campaign, a movement protesting Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system which prohibits women from travelling, marrying or even leaving prison without the permission of a male guardian. Saffaa’s imagery – featuring a face shrouded in the Saudi shemagh – became emblematic of the movement.

Crabapple said the work was a reflection of the complexity of the Muslim western experience that challenged conservatives on both sides of the spectrum.

“I couldn’t decide if the perpetrators were Islamist misogynists, infuriated by the mural’s opposition to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system – or Islamophobic racists, infuriated by the mural’s depictions of proud Middle Eastern women and assertion of multifaceted Muslim identities,” she said.

The original mural. Picture: Supplied.
The original mural. Picture: Supplied.

“No matter who did it, those who try to blot out art reveal only their own impotence. Censors always lose.”

The mural is featured on the wall of Morroccan Deli-cacy cafe, run by feminist activist Hana Assafiri.

Assafiri, known for hosting public salon-style conversations at her Melbourne restaurants, says she discovered the vandalism as she was opening the cafe on Sunday morning.

Assafiri, who employs only women, says vandalism in Melbourne’s progressive inner-city enclave highlighted her fears around security at the restaurant.

She also expressed concern at the ripple effect from the election of President Donald Trump in the United States on local artists and communities, particularly the recent executive order barring Muslim migrants and refugees from certain countries from entering the US.

“That this sort of rubbish and the expression of hate can be had in East Brunswick … it’s a manifestation of an attitude of continued bigotry and hate being fostered in all political climates.”

Saffaa said she felt “heartbroken and drained” at the prospect of repairing the wall.

“This has taken its toll on me [but] of course I will redo it bigger and better.”

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.


Audio · beauty · women · women's rights

Talking diversity, beauty and media

Check out my interview with ABC Radio Australia/News Radio evening host Prue Bentley. We discuss my piece in ABC’s The Drum exploring the controversy around the crowning of the first desi Miss America Nina Davuluri.

Is more diversity a form of progress even if it is within an outdated pageant framework? What about questions Davuluri would be too dark to be a beauty queen in India? Within this framework does her win indicate some kind of social evolution albeit in a limited form?

Check out my interview here:

What do you think?

Pakistan · politics · women · women's rights

Vultures circle Pakistan

Today seems a particularly fortuitous day to reflect on the leadership of Pakistan.

Former Pakistani Prime-Minister Nawaz Sharif swoops back after seven years of exile for his dramatic comeback today- with Pakistani media abuzz on the impact of his return.

Would he be exiled, executed or arrested? What would the impact of his comeback be in the wake of a year of disasters for the General Dictator Pervez Musharraf from sacked Chief justices, militant mosque massacres and secret deals with former Prime-Minister Benazir Bhutto?

The interesting piece in this political love triangle is of course the feudal fair-skinned princess Benazir Bhutto.

Continue reading “Vultures circle Pakistan”

islamic law · muslim women · review · women's rights

Review: Quran and Woman

Tariq Ramadan once said, “We are in dire need of a constructive critical reassessment of the Islamic discourse and understanding on women.”

Crucial to this was “a new perspective that… will read the sacred texts with fresh eyes (including those of female scholars).”

Enter 1- Dr. Amina Wadud the American Muslim scholar and controversial author of “Quran and Woman: Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective. ”

Her book is revolutionary precisely because it’s not revolutionary. She is no wishy washy “progressive” but a true scholar and woman of faith.

Continue reading “Review: Quran and Woman”