I was 6 or 7 years old the first time I witnessed my mother being abused by a complete stranger.
I was scared, confused and powerless as this man yelled obscenities at my mum, shaking his fist in the air, getting in her face. She held her ground, yelled back, and took the verbal onslaught like a champ, all the while people walked by, staring and doing nothing.
Once it was over, she got into the car and cried. I watched the strongest woman I have ever known fall to a million little pieces in front of me as she tried to hide her tears. It has taken me more than 25 years to realise that this was my first encounter with racism in Australia.
The piece of cloth, her hijab, that so fashionably covered my mother’s head, gave her away as a Muslim.
It didn’t matter that she had accomplished so much in her life, or done so much for her community in the short time that she had been in Australia; the cloth on her head offended this person and he just had to ‘let her have it’.
Sadly, nothing much has changed, and the trauma I experienced back then has been relived again and again throughout the years in various other forms.
My mother, now numb to the hate, some 30-plus years later, has learned to live on, move on with her life through the important community work she has so carefully cultivated. Founding the Islamic Women’s Association of Queensland in 1992 (now the Islamic Women’s Association of Australia) she has helped provide important services for the Muslim (and non-Muslim) community.
But her achievements mean nothing to the bigots, racists and haters. They see a Muslim woman and assume she is oppressed by her husband, weak and uneducated. They think that they can yell and swear the Muslim out of her - that maybe telling her to “go back to your F’ing country” will free her from her oppression.
Following in my mother’s footsteps, I now wear the offensive cloth in question, bringing with it all the problems that my mother, and many other women, have faced for choosing to wear it.
Muslims have been in Australia for decades, and yet people still have no idea who we are, what our beliefs are, and if we pose a threat. When it comes to misconceptions, Muslims win first prize for "most ridiculous misconceptions attached to a religion”. It is 2017 and I am still asked if I was born with my hijab… no, seriously.
I do my best to dispel the myths, and eye-roll away the misconceptions that people have made about Muslims, but there is no denying that people have formed a certain opinion about who I am and what I believe in. Sadly, this makes it difficult to feel like you’re welcome in the country you were born and raised in. In fact, it was because of this feeling of unwelcome that I decided, at the young age of 15, to wear the hijab.
I had been flippant with the hijab for a long time, putting it on, only to take it off after a week, before an incident prompted me to keep it on forever.
I was walking in the street, on my way to work, wearing my hijab, when a group of men in their car slowed down and yelled, “Go back to your own country”. Not the cleverest of insults, but it is precisely this sentiment that creates this feeling of unwelcome.
These “patriots” made a 15-year-old girl cry by instilling in her a fear that has never gone away; many others have done the exact same thing by glaring at me in the shops, muttering aggressively under their breaths as they walked by. Every racist remark and threatening gaze only fuelled my desire to define myself as the strong Muslim woman I am today, and when it got too much for me to handle, I always found my centre in the community of the mosque.
The mosque is one of those rare places where Muslims feels like they belong. Not only does it serve as a community space for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but it is a place where daily prayers, sermons, Islamic schooling and community functions take place.
I have many fond memories going to the mosque as a child, most of which were of me, rolling around on the carpet, while the aunties prayed and read Quran, often scolding me for not respecting the space. Of course there were the many Ramadan dinners, and the weekly after school Islamic classes, but what I enjoyed most about the mosque, and still do, was the serenity I feel inside. The freedom from the outside world; freedom from judgement; freedom from the glaring eyes; freedom from abuse. It is where a Muslim woman, like myself, can feel welcome and accepted.
One of my fondest memories of the mosque is breaking fast with my family and community during one of the many nights of Ramadan. The anticipation of finally eating after a long day of fasting; the glorious smell of the freshly cooked curries and rice, salads, roti; the watered down cordials and ‘no-name’ brand vanilla ice cream with canned fruit-salad desserts.
After the initial breaking of the fast, with the obligatory date and water, we’d hurry upstairs for maghreb (sunset) prayers, then hurry back downstairs to fill our plates with the mouthwatering food; the fold-out dinner tables alive with community spirit. After consuming too much, the kids would play “tiggy” in the grassy patch while the volunteers collected the leftovers and rubbish before the final prayers of the day. We’d do this pretty much every day during Ramadan, sometimes “mosque-hopping” around Brisbane, but always as a family.
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I admit that lately it has been difficult to find time to go to the mosque regularly, but that familiar feeling of community hasn’t gone. You feel it most in the times you really need it, like when my older brother died in 2008 and my father earlier this year; and unlike that unwelcome feeling I get when I walk in the shops, the community always welcomes me back with open arms.
I love this country and could never imagine living anywhere else in the world. Australia has allowed me to be who I am, and despite the unwelcome feeling that I often receive, it has supported me in my endeavours and allowed me to flourish. Where else could I make friends from various cultural and religious backgrounds, collect several degrees, be a working mother, and make positive contributions to my community and country?
Despite the trials I, and many like me, have faced, I still call Australia home. I just wish people could look past the cloth on my head, and see me as the funny, passionate, smart, loveable, stunningly beautiful and humble Aussie that I am.
Is that too much to ask?
The Mosque Next Door airs tonight 8.40 pm on SBS. Catch up on SBS On Demand.