The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Muslim Women In Australia: Fighting Back, Yes, But Not For The First Time

Posted by Rhiana Whitson on November 26, 2008

Courtesy the Age website

Pictured: Silma Ihram. Sourced from the Age website, photograph by Angela Wylie.

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.


7 Responses to “Muslim Women In Australia: Fighting Back, Yes, But Not For The First Time”

  1. Ardhra said

    So what do polygamous relationships have to do with violence against women?

    It looks like you need anti-racism, rather than “cultural sensitivity” about this.

  2. Rhiana Whitson said

    Ardhra, Polygamous relationships have recently had a lot to do with violence against women. The recent cases in America involving the Texan church, Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints, proves that it is not just an Islamic problem, but rather a problem of patriarchal interpretation of religion. Majority of Islamic feminists are also against what they see as a cultural, not Islamic, nor ‘Arab’ problem of polygamous relationships.

    By cultural sensitivity I refer to the history of white colonialism(particularly in Colonial Egypt and in the recent global climate post-S11, supposed ‘liberation of Afghani women’)and the difficulty of Western society commenting on the issues of another culture, race, religion without coming across, as your above comment suggests, as being ‘racist.’

    It is a shame that you have chosen to accuse me of racism (?) by focusing on the issue of polygamous relationships while ignoring the rest of my argument, which clearly states that I do not see the abuse of women as the fault of any specific race OR religion.

  3. Bearded Lady said

    It’s important to note that imams are not analogous to Christian clergy and should not be treated as such by the media. The Age published an opinion peice by Jamila Hussain, one of the women quoted in Zwartz’s article, a couple of days ago that touches on this point:

  4. Ardhra said

    Rihana, your argument doesn’t stand. It seems like you need a reintroduction to the difference between correlation and causation. What is the relationship between polygamy and violence against women? Neither your post nor your comment has made any attempt at even beginning to explain the relationship between the two, you’re just asserting that there is one.
    And your suggestion that because of one US LDS community’s abusive practices, that Muslim polygamous practices are somehow equivalent, doesn’t make sense. Either you accept that there is a cultural difference between the practices, or your claim to “cultural sensitivity” is just hot pixels.

    I can find out for myself what Islamic feminists say about the issue of polygamy, and your piggybacking on those views really does your argument no favours. Those Islamic feminists who are critical of polygamy are making the argument in a completely different context to the one you’re making it in.

    I also don’t see how “patriarchal interpretation of religion bad” = “all polygamous practices bad”.

    It’s actually a shame that you chose to take my comment so personally that you say I “accuse [you] of racism,” but that is a run-of-the-mill white feminist rhetorical tactic to derail the issue. Actually I said you should heed anti-racism, as opposed to “cultural sensitivity”. Not my fault that, in your ignorance of the distinction, you decided to throw accusations at me. Then again, you don’t seem to have grasped the distinction between lip service and anti-racism either.

  5. Rhiana Whitson said

    Adhra, I am aware of the difference between causation and correlation, but thank you for bringing it to my attention once again. I am not suggesting that polygamous relationships automatically result in violence against women. I am unsure of exactly how many polygamous relationships currently exist throughout the world, but I am sure that the arrangement does suit some situations. I am aware that the circumstances Islamic feminists make arguments against polygamous relationships are different from my own. I thought I acknowledged this in my post, but if not, I recognise the potential difficulties in arguing from a perspective such as mine (namely, lack of personal contact with women involved in polygamous relationships). However, I do not believe this disqualifies me from being able to support Islamic women by speaking out against this cultural practice. My understanding of Islam’s position on polygamous relationships is that it is justified only if the man is equally able to emotionally and financially provide for each individual wife. In some cases this may well be possible, but often, at least in the literature I have read, (from both Western and Islamic sources) polygamous marriages lead to emotional/physical/sexual abuse perpetrated by the husband against one or all wives. Of course such abuse is not confined to polygamous marriages, and I by no means suggest that this is the case. If I emotionally reacted to your advice for me to heed anti-racism instead of cultural sensitivity, I apologise. I am aware of the distinction between anti-racism and lip service, but once again, thank you for bringing it to my attention. The bottom line is; polygamous relationships are illegal in this country. You can suggest that I, or my argument is “run-of-the-mill white feminist rhetoric” all you like, but my view that polygamous marriages are largely bad for women stands, and is supported by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

    Thanks for the healthy debate. I enjoy the challenge.

  6. Rhiana Whitson said

    I forgot to add that it is rarely wealthy women who end up in polygamous marriages. Most women enter into these marriages because they have few other avenues available to support themselves through, thus relying on the financial security of one male. As such polygamous marriages tend to be a symptom of the poverty and lack of education.

  7. Ardhra said

    How is it “support[ive] of Islamic women” to make these arguments in a blog mostly for white women, that mostly discusses white women’s issues, and which links to mostly white women? What are you trying to achieve by making unsupported assertions about Muslim women’s lives in a white feminist blog? Which Muslim feminists have stated that this is what they want their white feminist allies to focus on?

    in the literature I have read, (from both Western and Islamic sources) polygamous marriages lead to emotional/physical/sexual abuse perpetrated by the husband against one or all wives

    Care to cite your sources?

    The bottom line is; polygamous relationships are illegal in this country.

    LOL. What does that have to do with whether or not they’re bad for women? That’s a ridiculously uncritical statement, coming from someone who calls herself a feminist. Legal and illegal has little to do with whether something is good for women. I’m really perplexed that you think the law is the “bottom line” of an argument for or against a practice.

    I forgot to add that it is rarely wealthy women who end up in polygamous marriages. Most women enter into these marriages because they have few other avenues available to support themselves through, thus relying on the financial security of one male. As such polygamous marriages tend to be a symptom of the poverty and lack of education.

    Where? Also, how does this relate to violence against women? Poverty and lack of education in the Muslim community over and above the levels for the general Australian population is “shocking”, but condemning polygamous marriages does nothing to explain why that poverty and lack of education exists in the first place, and I doubt cracking down on polygamous marriages would do anything to remedy the situation.

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