Discussing Muslim Women in Australia: An Interview With Joumanah El Matrah

Recently, Australia’s ABC National Radio show, The Religion Report, covered the issue of racism experienced by Muslim women. In light of a recent Australian report entitled “Race, Faith and Gender” published by the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria that assessed the impact of racism on Muslim women, host David Rutledge interviewed Joumanah El Matra, the Executive Director of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria about the issue. You can listen to the interview and read the transcript here.

Joumanah El Matrah - Image via 2002 Women's Global Leadership Institute
Joumanah El Matrah - Image via 2002 Women's Global Leadership Institute

The report, as El Matra explains, demonstrates that many non-Muslim Victorians (sixty percent) “associate Muslim women with poor treatment, with oppression and with submissiveness” and tended to see “Muslim women as really lacking any sort of human agency.” The report also sadly indicated that Muslim women themselves were hesitant to approach authorities if needed because of lack of response from authorities. The report clearly identifies that racism impacts the lives of Muslim women in Australia in substantive ways.

During the course of the interview some important points were brought up and interesting issues were discussed. We on MMW have often discussed the fine balancing act we perform in addressing the problems within our own community while at the same time trying to defend it against increased stigmatization. Rutledge asks El Matra about this balancing act:

David Rutledge: Well you’ve told me that there are positive attitudes towards Muslims out there in the non-Muslim community, but as you’ve mentioned, many people are – well they’re sympathetic towards Muslim women because they feel that Muslim women are oppressed within their own communities, and I want to ask you if that presents an issue for the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council because on one hand you’re working with women who are experiencing things like domestic violence and discrimination within their own communities, but on the other hand, you I guess, need to defend those communities from the attitudes of non-Muslims who think that all Muslim women are oppressed. How do you negotiate that?

Joumanah El Matrah: Look, sometimes very well, sometimes very badly. It does make it extremely difficult for us, because the vast majority of the community does feel, if you like, under siege and they don’t want any sort of negative information being released about the community, because they feel that it fuels further racism. Nonetheless, those issues are real and I think that our purpose and commitment needs to be to stay committed to those issues and keep reminding people that violence against women is not unique to Muslim communities.

As accurately noted this is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. Problems within the community must be addressed and dealt with, but as a religious and/or ethnic minority, the threat of stigmatization is a real one if problems are highlighted. Therefore, the need to address and deal with problems, while ensuring the protection of the communities’ respect and reputation, becomes of utmost importance. Both must occur simultaneously.

The program also brought up the important issue of who speaks for Muslim women and defensiveness within the Muslim women community.

David Rutledge: You’re right, of course, when you say that these things happen in all communities, but I’m wondering about cross-community or cross-cultural dialogue about this. And it was very interesting I thought in 2006 when the then mufti of Australia made his comments about women and uncovered meat, and he received a lot of support from Muslim women who said, ‘Well yes, this is an issue, but it’s our issue and non-Muslims can butt out’. Now do you think that that’s right, that it is up to Muslims to sort out their problems or is there some way in which non-Muslims can weigh into these debates without being seen as Islamophobic or prejudiced?

Joumanah El Matrah: It is possible, but it requires very different community relations than we currently have at the moment in Australia. Mainstream Australians continue to think of Muslims are more violent than other groups and that the issues they face surrounding the violence are unique and certainly far more frequent than other communities. And until those perceptions move, I don’t think that many in the Muslim community are going to welcome inter-community intervention or support with open arms.

Basically, El Matrah hits on a common concern in Muslim communities – that generalizations about Muslims among non-Muslim communities hinder inter-community dialogue and make Muslims hesitant to accept help from non-Muslims.

However, el-Matrah points out a disadvantage of these distances and this defensiveness among young Muslim women. When asked by Rutledge:

David Rutledge: You and I spoke a few years ago on this program, and we were talking about the issue of self-criticism within Islam, and this is the question we still hear, you know, “where is the reflective, self-critical voice in Islam”? I asked you at the time if you thought that in Australia at least, that women might be emerging as that voice, and you said that they might be, but that we haven’t quite arrived yet. Are we closer, do you think?

Joumanah El Matrah: I think we’re closer, but it’s taken a couple of steps back. I’ve noticed that younger women are more defensive about status and our position in Islam than some of the older women, and I think at the moment, young Muslim women seem to be stuck on defending Islam at all costs. And I can see that with some of the younger women who are so invested in defending themselves, their community and their religion, that they’ve left really no room for analysis, and I don’t know whether that will come with age, or whether it’s a function that many young Muslims now have grown up in the post September 11th environment, and it’s difficult for them to get a grip on what relations were like prior to September 11th. They’ve grown up in an environment where what they value is considered regressive, compared to Australian culture.

El Matrah makes an important point and one which I’ve noticed as well. As someone who clearly remembers a pre-9/11 world in which I faced minimal hostility toward my religion, the value of critical analysis of my own religion and Muslims has always been obvious to me. A critical analysis which was able to occur without worry that all Muslims would be stigmatized as violent. However, as minorities, the threat of stigmatization, little or large, has always been there. This is the reality for all minorities – ethnic, religious, sexual, etc.

Finally, on the issue of Iktimal Hage-Ali, whom we covered on MMW recently, El Matrah was forgiving and sympathetic:

David Rutledge: Do you think this is where Iktimal Hage-Ali ironically, could be seen as a role model, an example of how difficult it is for Muslim women to step forward or to be pushed forward as representative of their communities?

Joumanah El Matrah: Yes, yes, I think she was really a perfect example. What was really interesting about her was that she was I think also condemned by Australian society for falling short of that ideal, you know, that they wanted her to be a liberated Muslim women with absolutely no faults whatsoever, so there’s a lot of attention and support given to her, because she didn’t wear the hijab, she spoke very much about living in Australia and being part of Australian society but she was also idolised as well, and the fact that she was associated with people who were questioned over drugs, in my mind wasn’t actually a big deal, but somehow she disappointed everybody and wasn’t allowed to redeem herself in any way.

David Rutledge: And of course the pressure on her came from elements within the Muslim communities as well, she was vilified and smear campaigns.

Joumanah El Matrah: Absolutely, yes. I think that’s how a lot of Muslim women feel though, that they can’t win if they put themselves forward, that one side or the other or both are going to target them in one way or another.

The interview with El Matrah revealed a great deal about Muslim women in Australia. Issues which Muslim women living as minorities in the Western world deal with were presented. To understand the issues in more detail one would have to read the report, although the interview gave listeners a taste of the report’s findings. The interviewer was able to ask important questions which would be on the minds of many non-Muslims and El Matrah was able to answer them intelligently. Having such dialogue in which those ignorant of the issues are able to ask honest and sincere questions which are then answered in honest and self-respectful ways is beneficial to all parties involved.

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