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Supporting our multicultural and multifaith community

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 18 Nov 2014

I want to speak tonight in support of our incredible multicultural and multifaith community and, in particular, in support of and in solidarity with Muslim women. I have been extremely upset by the racist attacks on our Australian Muslim community, which have increased with the brutality being experienced in Iraq at the hands of ISIS.

I do not want to focus tonight on our government's reaction to this—increasing ASIO powers, cracking down on people visiting Syria and Iraq in order to stop foreign fighters, and following the US into an unwinnable war in the Middle East. What I want to discuss is the importance of keeping Australians safe at home in this climate of fear and terror by bringing us together and building cohesion in our community.

I am not Muslim—in fact, I am not at all religious. I was brought up as a Christian but I now oscillate between describing myself as agnostic or atheist. But I will vigorously defend the rights of people to practise their religion, whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi or whatever. I see our vibrant multifaith community as a strength of our Australian society.

I live in Footscray in Melbourne. I used to work in Broadmeadows. My office is now in Coburg. My Melbourne, my Australia, is one of people of all backgrounds, all races, all faiths working and living harmoniously together—our diversity making us a stronger, better, more resilient, more interesting and vibrant Australia.

So the recent racist attacks on our Muslim community distressed me. When I heard of Muslim women being abused on the streets of Melbourne, having their headscarves ripped off, being attacked on public transport, I had to act. I decided that at the very least I could express my solidarity with Muslim women in Victoria. I organised a morning tea to be held at a community centre in Fawkner, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne where many Muslim families live.

I thought maybe 15 to 20 women would come. But the community centre put the word out well. When we arrived, the community house was already crowded, and women and children kept arriving. We estimated 150 women crammed into the small venue and took the opportunity to talk to us about what they were experiencing. That 150 women made the effort to come tells a story in itself. These women feel under threat.

I would like to thank Meredith Lawrence at Fawkner Community House who organised the event with us; Moreland City Councillors Lenka Thompson and Sue Bolton; and Tasneen Chopra from the Muslim Women's Council for Human Rights who also attended.

I want to quote extensively tonight from a letter that was presented to me by one of the women who attended the morning tea, Nasrin. Her words reflect the feelings of so many in the room. Nasrin describes herself as a mother of three children and IT professional working for a large financial institution. She says, and I quote from her letter:

I am humbled by the opportunity to express concerns about the violence and physical attacks happening towards Muslims and in particular Muslim women wearing headscarves.

It is a great honour for me to be here, at the same time, it is also a shame that I need to stand up for my basic right, that is—freedom to practice my religion without being fearful of racism in 21st Century Australia.

The fear of racial attacks is so widespread in the community that a number of my well wishers advised me 'speak softly, be careful, choose your words carefully'—this is due to their genuine concern that after writing this letter, I might have to face personal attacks and home invasion by unwelcomed guests.

However, given what is happening recently, we cannot be just silent.

We need to realise that the recent attacks on Muslim women are actually a symptom of a major underlying issue—that is 'Racism in Australia.' We need to analyse the root cause of this issue to understand what has led us into this situation before we can stop it and prevent it from happening in the future.

Women at the morning tea told their stories of missing medical appointments because they were afraid to catch public transport, of being abused from car windows, of having head scarves ripped off. This is a shocking indictment on our society. We had a representative of the Victoria Police attend the morning tea, who talked about actions women could take to help them stay safe and encouraged them to report any racist and violent actions. We distributed a sheet giving phone numbers and details of who to contact if they were attacked.

This was important information and was appreciated, but it should not be necessary. What and who are flaming these racist attacks? As Nasrin said in her letter:

Our politicians are dividing communities by targeting Muslims based on association of faith in the name of 'National security'. I would like to ask the question why are we linking the overseas political issues with the local Muslim Community—is it due to guilt of association by faith?

It is time to admit that there are exaggerations of the reality to spread fear and taking out of proportion actions to single out a community and religious groups without solid evidence. This doesn't really seem to be consistent with the democracy and liberty that we preach. All these issues are definitely destroying our trust and causing unhealthy division.

The sense that the attacks on them began 'at the top' was shared by most of the women attending the morning tea. Nasrin continues:

The recent home invasions prove that we have lost the safety and security not only on the streets but also the privacy of our own homes. Muslim women are seeing their children, husbands, fathers, brothers and close relatives being taken away in custody without being charged and purely based on 'suspicions'.

The media is assisting these fear mongering acts by misrepresenting facts, for example, describing a plastic toy sword, that was found during one of these home raids, as sharp like a razor that can kill someone when in reality it cannot even cut a cucumber.

The violence towards Muslim women is a consequence of the Islamophobic attitude of some politicians. The media further sensationalises their exaggerated fears. These in turn have contributed to the radicalisation of certain groups who are now attacking Muslim women.

These are the consequences of what is said here in our parliament. These are the consequences of last month's ill thought out and offensive proposed bans on burqas and niqabs in the public galleries here at Parliament House. Nasrin outlines five ways forward. They are:

Firstly, introduce tougher anti racism laws to bring the offenders to justice.

Secondly, educate the politicians and media reporters by providing mandatory compliance training about unconscious bias. They need to learn how to promote cohesion in the community.

We may even need to consider providing professional counselling services to those politicians who are suffering from excessive fear and anxiety.

Thirdly, outlaw and ban any racist person, groups or organisations that are promoting hatred based on race, religion or culture and bring them to justice.

Fourthly, provide more resources to our police force to implement justice effectively. Currently, many of us are not reporting the racial or physical attacks, as they believe that nothing will be done about it.

Finally, raise more community awareness to stop racism.

Those are Nasrin's suggestions. I support these calls and call upon my fellow parliamentarians to join me in supporting them.

I want to finish by sharing another event organised by a non-Muslim woman who had attended the morning tea. She was a parent at Pascoe Vale North Primary School and, after hearing the stories at the morning tea, decided to organise a lunch at her school to bring non-Muslim and Muslim mothers together. This event too was a great success, involving 30 or so women. Some of the comments that were made at this lunch included: 'We should get together more often as a school, as a community, as mothers. We have a lot more in common than we think we do,' and 'We should keep doing this, to break down the barriers and make more of an effort to get involved and be part of our school community.' I salute parents, Angela and Susan, and Betty, the school principal for organising such a positive event, leading the way in building community rather than being confronted by difference. I will let Nasrin's words finish my speech:

At the end, we need to think positive and be positive. It is true that the majority of us are decent Australians who show great respect to each other. For example, last night as I was returning from work, in the train a man approached me and he said, 'I support you wearing headscarf. I am sorry to see all these attacks happening'.

We shall overcome this era and work together to build a great nation for our children where we care for and respect each other.

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