Sunday, May 29, 2005

UnSecret Womens Business (Part I)

This week, I was fortunate to attend consultations arranged by 2 Australian Muslim women’s groups. I thought I might share with readers what I saw, thought, interpreted, misinterpreted and probably misunderstood from each meeting. If it gets too long (given my ability to be long-winded and bombastic), I might turn it into a 2-part series.

The first consultation took place on Thursday 26 May 2005. It was held at and organised by the Muslim Womens Association at their offices in Lakemba in south western Sydney.

The MWA like to refer to themselves as the ‘United Muslim Womens Association’. And they certainly put on a united front on this evening.

The president, Sally Mousa, spoke and introduced the association and the project. Sally is a young Australian woman of Iraqi background. She holds a number of tertiary qualifications (including, I believe, a Masters in Social Policy).

I first met Sally in 1999. She was then an undergraduate student and worked in a department store in Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD). She was your typical northern Sydney girl (with a slight Canadian twang). At the time, there was a debate raging about hijabs in Turkey. Sally decided to join the debate and placed a piece of cloth on her head. No one in the photographic section of the department store where she worked seemed to mind.

At that time, Sally impressed me as someone with enormous stores of energy. Frequently, she would passionately disagree with me, and it was so refreshing to meet a Muslim female with an opinion and the willingness to express it.

And now our Sr Sally was standing at the top of Sydney’s oldest Muslim women’s organisation. The changes she was implementing were quite obvious.

For a start, not everyone working in the organisation had the same surname. The MWA, like many organisations part of the oldest of the 3 Islamic Councils in New South Wales, had for years been plagued with nepotism. It seemed getting a job or an executive position was impossible unless you were somehow related to one of numerous Lebanese royal families.

Sally was upbeat about these changes, describing it as a process of injecting new blood whilst maintaining links with the MWA’s founding members. She also introduced the program being funded by the NSW Attorney General’s Department. The “Step Up” program was a project funded in order to fight racism and discrimination against “Muslim and Arab” communities.

As part of the program, 2 project officers were employed. One had a predictable surname, but both were employed on their merits. And those attending the consultation represented a broad cross-section of the community. Well, they probably did. At least I was told that many other people were invited.

As usual, I could not restrain myself from making controversial remarks. The crescendo arose when I dared to suggest that there are at least 2 other Muslim Women’s groups who could be consulted and that the MWA should consider talking to “even Muslim women’s groups with whom you do not see eye to eye”.

The employed general manager of the MWA, formerly the MWA president for around a decade, immediately jumped in with: “Brother Irfan, we have our contacts and we will be using those”.

Well, that’s what I remembered her saying. They recorded the whole affair, as did a whole bunch of angels sitting on people’s shoulders. So I’d better shut up.

But enough of my SBS (scientifically- balanced smart-ass) comments and subtitles. What impressed me about the night was as follows:

1. MWA were open, up-front and transparent about how much funding they received and what it was for. They told us what their budget was.

2. MWA were slick. For years they have been doing work that no one else has been prepared to touch. And now they are realising that there is no harm in telling others what they do. You have to be seen to be doing something, not just doing it.

3. The entire meeting was conducted in the English language. Everyone there spoke English, including an executive member of the Lebanese Muslim Association.

4. The meeting was being recorded.

5. Executive and staff members were taking notes. They genuinely appeared interested in what we armchair critics had to say.

6. We all got a nice show-bag with 4 copies of the suitably funky ‘Reflections’ magazine.

7. I didn’t cough like a dying man after eating the “man’oosh” (or as us Urdu-speakers call it, the “man’oos”). And cheese pizzas were also quite tasty.

8. My errant Fiji-Indian cousin phoned me just at the right time to talk about her boyfriend troubles. I was just about to ruin my diet by grabbing the bottle of creaming soda when my phone started vibrating. I was able to do some on-the-spot counselling outside in the cold dark Lakemba night, something MWA staff must do everyday.

But seriously, MWA cop a lot of flack from their communities. And the flack is generally well-deserved. I mean, how dare they fight domestic violence? And who are they to protect women of all faiths from violence and homelessness by establishing a refuge? How dare they provide a properly functioning referral service for women in crisis? And worst of all, how dare they speak English!!

As this entire essay is going from sublime to ridiculous, I had better mention the name of one more MWA founder with whom the MWA has every right to be proud of. This founder was a pioneer in giving Muslim women voices in mosque and community affairs. This founder urged Muslim women to be educated and to protect their rights. This founder frequently shields these women from personal attacks made by disgruntled fathers and husbands resentful that they had no one to use their fists on.

This founder has always defended and supported the MWA and every other Muslim women’s group. This founder was a pioneer of Muslim women’s activism, perhaps our community’s first true feminist.

This founder was and remains a bloke. He is an Imam. He is currently risking his life in Iraq trying to free an Australian hostage. This founder was Imam Taj ad-Din al-Hilaly. Had he been present on the night I am sure he would be proud of how far the MWA has gone since it was founded over 2 decades ago!

To be continued …

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