VICTORIA – Though the term speed date might appear romantic or social event, Australians are using it to arrange meetups with Muslims to ask questions and smash racial boundaries.
“Social change only happens if you can walk the journey of those that you are wanting to engage,” Hana Assafiri told SBS on Thursday, March 2.
The idea of the non-romantic “Speed Date A Muslim” is the brainchild of Assafiri, who launched the event in 2016 from the upstairs dining room of her Brunswick cafe, the Moroccan Deli-cacy.
Born in Australia but raised in Morocco and Lebanon, Assafiri adopted the ‘speed dating’ format to provide a safe and respectful space for local non-Muslim to meet and ask Muslims all the curly questions they were otherwise too shy to.
The overall aim is to provide people who want to explore, challenge or better understand their racial and religious perceptions with an opportunity to do just that.
Assafiri tells SBS that she has local mum and member of the Shepparton Ethnic Council, Betul Tuna, to thank for the invitation.
“Betul attended a speed dating event in Brunswick, and stood up halfway through,” remembers Assafiri.
“She said, ‘for all your latte-sipping, polished approaches to race relations, things are very different for us in Shepparton. Put your money where your mouth is, and come run this event up there.’
“So we did.”
Yet, the past year brought many challenges to Assafiri’s town which was reported to be home to the highest number of Pauline Hanson supporters outside of Queensland, with a local council candidate named Diane Teasdale even adopting the dubious slogan, ‘Pauline’s busy, so I will look after you in Greater Shepparton’.
In another more serious incident, a local Muslim doctor was attacked in front of her husband for no reason other than wearing the hijab.
Despite these events, people in the town are making genuine efforts to promote racial inclusion.
Greater Shepparton City Council is a major partner with the Human Rights Commission ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ campaign.
Hanife Coskun is a fourth-generation Shepparton local who describes her family as “very Aussie”.
Converting to Islam 17 years ago, Hanife no longer wears hijab, and says that many people are not aware she is Muslim. She says she attended the event to help bridge the social gap in her local community between the Muslim and non-Muslim families.
“When I first converted, my family were scared,” says Coskun. “The first thing mum asked me was about female genital mutilation!”
“In Shepparton, I’ve seen racism and I’ve experienced it. I’ve heard comments, usually from older white males, who say things like ‘Go back to where you came from’ directed to women wearing scarves, who are a representation of our religion.”
However, Coskun says, she also believes that the ‘racist’ tag on her local town is unfounded.
“I would say that Shepparton is an open-minded town. We’re into diversity. Shep is very accepting.”