VICTORIA – Noticing a worrying increase in Islamophobia incidents in Australia, a group of Muslim women in Eastern Victoria, Gippsland, decided to take an action, creating a platform to bridge the gap between different cultures and religions.
“We want our children to learn about our faith, culture and also respect for new homeland’s culture and values,” Arfa Khan, president of United Muslims Sisters of the Latrobe Valley (UMSTV), told AboutIslam.net.
Living in Gippsland, home to hundreds of immigrants, Khan said that the majority of residents have little or no contact with Muslims.
In a bid to change the status quo, United Muslims Sisters have come up with an awareness program that fits in to English curriculums throughout Gippsland.
The first of its kind in the region, it gives students from multicultural backgrounds a platform to share their experiences with their classmates—bridging the gap between different cultures and religions.
She says the basic purpose of the woman-based organization is to give a platform for ladies to talk about issues.
At first, teenagers were reluctant to speak about where they came from and their interactions at schools, but after a while the stories started to pour out.
While in Gippsland there have been rare occurrences of Islamophobia, Khan said working closely with police has helped.
“This region is very peaceful for Muslim women there are rare elements of islamophobia. Women who wear hijab have faced a few statements like ‘ go back where you have come from’,” she said.
Initially the United Muslim Sisters intended to limit the project to the Latrobe Valley, however after such a successful pilot, supported by The Funding Network, they are welcoming all primary and secondary schools across Gippsland to participate.
Turning four this year, the UMSLV has had a long history of eye opening workshops in the small town of Traralgon.
One of the most successful projects they have run are the hijab workshops; where women are invited to try on the hijab, and ask questions about its importance.
“We ran quite a few sessions on Hijab and the response was overwhelming,” Khan said.
“We had array of comments such as, ‘we thought ladies who cover themselves are oppressed, but we didn’t know most of the ladies do it by choice,’” she recalled.
She added that the basic aim of running the hijab workshops is to create awareness and knowledge for locals, who might have never met any Muslim to teach them about the faith side of hijab
Khan believes hijab is not only a piece of clothing for women, but it represents modesty and the safeguarding the pious aspire.
“The scarf is not a weapon,” Khan said.
There are elements of racism prevalent in every society, and the UMSLV aim is to break those stereotypes and embrace cultural cohesion with open arms.
A mentor to her peers and a leader in her community, Khan leaves words of advice for her fellow Muslim sisters, calling for unity and a better understanding of each other.
“Being a Muslim, I believe Islam is the religion of peace and my piece of advice to the newly converts are; welcome to the religion, don’t make a generalized understanding of Islam, rather read and understand the holy book and learn the true meaning of religion,” she said.
“In its true manifestation Islam is a way of life; so incorporate it in your daily lives, and if you come across any ambiguity about any aspect of religion read more about it and talk to religious scholars and talk with your Muslim peers for more clarity about religion.”