Muslim Women In Australia: Fighting Back, Yes, But Not For The First Time
Posted by Rhiana Whitson on November 26, 2008
You may have read last week’s media reports on the current situation of Australian Muslim women, particularly the provocative headline, “Muslim Women Start Fighting Back.” The sudden interest in the situation of Australian Muslim women was sparked by last week’s conference held at the University of Melbourne’s National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies. First of all, I must say I have a problem with the headline “Muslim Women Start Fighting Back”, for this to me implies that it is the first time Muslim women are fighting back, when Islamic feminism, a hotly debated topic in itself, has existed for a very, very long time.
One particular report funded by the previous government, and undertaken by the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria, entitled, ‘Report of the community consultation of training of Muslim religious leaders’ provided some startlingly findings about the religiously sanctioned mistreatment and abuse of women in Australia.
The findings of the report are the result of broad community consultation, including interviews with police, lawyers, court workers, academics, and meetings with the Victorian Board of Imams.
As reported in the Age last week, according to the findings:
Women seeking divorces have also been told by Imams that they must leave “with only the clothes on their back” and not seek support or a share of property because they can get welfare payments.
And the report says some Imams knowingly perform polygamous marriages, also knowing that the second wife, a de facto under Australian law, can claim Centrelink payments.
It says women, community and legal workers and police involved in the consultation were particularly concerned about domestic violence, and suggested that imams aimed to preserve the family at the cost of women.
When cases came to court they were often dropped after family and community elders pressured women to withdraw charges.
The report says some women who were legally separated but not religiously divorced had their husbands enter their houses, demand sexual intercourse and take it by force.
“Workers who have assisted women in this situation said that the advice women received from the imams was that it was “halal” — permitted — because there was a valid “nikah” — marriage,” it says.
The report also cites sexual assault allegations connected with under-age marriages.
It says polygamy is steadily increasing and gaining acceptance among Melbourne Muslims, and Shepparton police report many “de facto” relationships that are really polygamous marriages.
Findings such as these are truly shocking, and a symptom of what prominent Islamic spokeswoman, Silma Ihram, who was quoted in “Muslim Women Fighting Back”, sees as a conflict of religious patriarchal views imported from countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Islam is instituted into the legal system, Shari’a law and the lived realities of a Western society such as Australia. Ihram argues that:
“While Muslim women in Australia generally enjoy greater apparent liberty than their peers in Muslim dominated landscapes, they are still subjected to a paternalistic scriptural and patriarchal interpretation of Islam. “
Of course Australia is nowhere near close to perfect when it comes to stopping violence and discrimination against women, as fellow Dawn Choruster mscate noted in her post about The White Ribbon Foundation’s report, violence against women is so insidious it effects generations of boys and girls, men and women.
Ihram points out that new voices have begun to challenge “the authority of ethnic religious leadership in the mosque, partly in frustration at the politics and limited capacity of ethnic Muslim associations.”
What is unique about the Age’s reports on this issue last week, is that is these voices are being heard in the mainstream media. Post-September 11, media coverage in Australia involving Muslim women speaking out against gender discrimination has been rare. This is not because of a lack of Muslim women voices, but rather a lack of willingness of the West (and I include some Western feminists in this category also) to accept the validity of an Islamic feminism. Instead much of the cries for the protection of Islamic women has, to borrow Spivak’s phrase, a case of “white (wo)men protecting brown women from brown men.”
I admit that a degree of cultural sensitivity, but not cultural relativism, needs to be adhered to when approaching such issues from the perspective of what I inescapably am, that is a white, atheist feminist.
Of course not all Muslim men disrespect women, the issue should not be be taken as a representation of Islam itself (to do so would be to ignore the complexity of Islam). Unfortunately for many Australians whose only experience of Islam is confined to media reports of terrorism and ‘covered’ women, this report might do just that. This is why more representation of Muslim men and women is needed in the Australian media.
However, this does not mean that we do not have a right to comment on the horrendous abuse of power shown by Muslim clerics and Muslim men, as highlighted by the report’s findings. As feminists we must be concerned, and we must speak out.
We abhor any violence against women, whether that be justified by masculine aggression or religion. Like Islamic feminists, we do not believe that ‘true’ Islam justifies such violence and discrimination against women.
Hopefully these findings won’t be hijacked by conservatives who will use the rights of Muslim women to further their own anti-Muslim aims.
Muslim women deserve better.