My ‘third child’ made me a target for Islamophobes, but has delivered powerful insights

I’ve described the Islamophobia Register Australia as my third child. I founded it when I was on parental leave with my first child and this year they are both eight years old. It’s definitely the child which has given me the most amount of grief.

Recognising the increase in anecdotal experiences of every-day Islamophobia among my circle of friends, I felt compelled to start the register to track these incidents. When I’d ask my friends to report their incidents to police, like the time one of them was verbally abused and spat on as she walked through Sydney’s Central railway station, they’d say: “What’s the point?”

The point, of course, was that authorities needed to know that these incidents were not just random – the victims were being targeted for appearing to be visibly Muslim.

Eight years on from launching the register, last week we released the third Islamophobia in Australia report to coincide with the third anniversary of the Christchurch terror attacks as a reminder that Islamophobia kills, to put it bluntly.

The report found that there was a noticeable spike in the abuse endured by Australian Muslims in the two-week period after the Christchurch terror attacks. In fact, reports of Islamophobia quadrupled after the attack. I repeat, quadrupled. It’s harrowing to think that after 50 Muslims were murdered in a live-streamed Islamophobically motivated killing spree in what was one of the deadliest attacks in New Zealand’s history – Muslims became even greater targets. I cannot begin to explain how psychologically damaging that is on a number of fronts.

Having advocated in the anti-racism space for the past decade, I have to speak bluntly because the price I’ve paid both personally and professionally is too high. The Christchurch terror attacks will forever be etched into my memory and not only because a member of my extended family was murdered in the attacks (71-year-old Afghan refugee Daoud Nabi) but because we had felt like we had gut-wrenchingly failed in our advocacy. So many of us had warned authorities prior to the attacks that an attack of this nature was inevitable.

What the third Islamophobia in Australia report also highlights is the increasingly gendered nature of Islamophobia – with the victims being predominantly women (82 per cent) and the perpetrators, predominantly men (78 per cent).

Eight-five per cent of these women were wearing hijab while 15 per cent were women in the presence of their children. Alarmingly, being in “guarded locations” with security personnel or security cameras present did not serve as a deterrent for the perpetrators – which again speaks to the normalisation of Islamophobia.

While no one consciously signs up to become the unofficial sacrificial lamb to the anti-Islamic movement and its favourite poster child, somehow, I found myself in that situation as a visibly Muslim, vocal anti-racism advocate and founder of the register.

Despite the death threats, bacon packages sent to my former residential address, the hate mail, the doxing, the endless cyber abuse which still continues till this day, I am immensely proud that the register has been instrumental in providing key stakeholders and policymakers the academic data required to better understand and tackle Islamophobia in Australia.

In fact, the register has been cited as inspiration for the National Justice Project’s First Nations Racism Register, which has been recently launched to serve a similar purpose. While it’s a sad reality that there is a desperate need for the existence of such registers, it speaks volumes that affected minority communities take it upon themselves to establish such organisations.

The collection of data detailing the incidents of racism and discrimination is vital in helping to equip advocates and policymakers alike with a better sense of the depth and breadth of the issues they are trying to tackle. As we know, what gets measured, gets acted on (holds breath).

Mariam Veiszadeh is the president and founder of the Islamophobia Register Australia.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald

A pinch in Australia delivers a punch to hunger

Australians are feeling the pinch. The war in Ukraine has sent economic shockwaves through the global economy. Petrol. Housing. Groceries. There’s barely a good or service spared from inflation.

But what if that pinch was a gut punch?

That’s the reality for 50 million people worldwide on the brink of famine, including Afghanistan, my country of birth.

The number of people feeling the body blow of acute hunger has tripled from 135 million to 345 million since 2019. Every night 811 million people go to bed hungry. Heartbreakingly, eight million children under five around the world could die from starvation.

The sheer numbers of this story are impossible to comprehend. To understand the true horror you have to zoom right into the human level.

Consider, for example, the experience of my family in Afghanistan.

Taliban rule threatens lives daily. And recently we discovered the body of one of our extended family members who was abducted not long after the Taliban took over, confirming our worst fears.  Death and violence is only one of a multitude of ways to die in Afghanistan. My family, facing grave danger, knew that remaining meant they’d be at risk in several ways including not being able to access or afford basic necessities. The irony is that you could face death via Taliban rule or via starvation – the odds are stacked against you.

My family were forced to flee to another country where things are slightly better. But not everyone can escape the rising tide of hunger.

As one of the world’s wealthiest nations, Australia can definitely do more to help people meet their most fundamental human requirement: to eat.

That’s why I’ve joined Help Fight Famine, an alliance campaign of Australia’s leading humanitarian organisations, to ask Treasurer Jim Chalmers to invest $150 million in a global hunger package to urgently save lives.

We need this emergency package from the Australian government in the October federal budget.

I know the government is doing its best to tighten the nation’s belt right now.

But we should recognise this is not the same old global hunger story. And it’s not a sum plucked out of the air.

Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, supplying the world with sunflower, oil, barley, maize and fertilisers.

Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan are dependent on Ukraine and Russia for 40 to 90 per cent of wheat supplies, a staple in those countries.

The recent deal between Ukraine and Russia to allow grain to be exported is mired in the fragility of war. I hope it is the “beacon of hope” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres flagged. But just 24 hours after the agreement was signed, Russian rockets rained on the port of Odessa, damaging grain storage facilities. The deep uncertainty surrounding exports mean the urgent need for humanitarian aid is as vital as ever.

Australia knows all too well the devastating impact climate change can have on agriculture. The lingering effects of shocking floods continue to send prices for fruit and vegetables sky high. Before that natural disaster, drought scorched paddocks and ruined harvests across vast swathes of the country.

In the Horn of Africa, farmers are staring down the barrel of a historic fifth failed rainy season.

Somalia’s 2011 food crisis in which 260,000 people died came after two failed rainy seasons – at the time considered to be the worst drought in 60 years.

Food prices are higher now. Covid doubled the number of people living with life-threatening hunger. The war in Ukraine continues to rage.

About seven million people in Somalia alone are set to face acute food insecurity between June and September. One person is likely dying of hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Around 63 per cent of South Sudan’s entire population will struggle to survive this year’s lean season. Among all these confronting statistics, it’s easy to lose sight of a simple truth: we are talking about individual people. Children, mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers and sons. So many precious lives on the brink. Some of whom include people I know through my extended family. These are not just numbers.

This funding will save lives through practical action delivered by leading aid organisations with the capacity for rapid delivery.

For example, Plan International is delivering emergency food packages and school meals that are preventing thousands of children from facing the life-long consequences of severe malnutrition. By supporting NGOs and local organisations who work hand-in-hand with local communities, we can ensure this urgent funding gets to the people who need it most.

Last year’s evacuations, despite its shortcomings, showed the special bond between Australia and Afghanistan. Now in the face of another disaster it’s time to act.

The Albanese government has signalled a more humanitarian approach to global crises. This is its first major test. Australia is a generous nation. We have rightly spent $385 million on military assistance for Ukraine. Less than half of that will save lives from an awful humanitarian catastrophe. It’s our duty as a good global citizen to defend millions from the hunger gut punch. A relative pinch in the federal budget can go a long way in helping fight famine.

16/08/22 The Daily Telegraph

As an Afghan Australian, I watch in despair as the west cuts and runs

As an Afghan Australian, my heart is in my mouth as I watch on in complete despair.

The final nail in the coffin was seeing images emerge of Taliban members perched in Kabul’s presidential palace.

Headline after headline reads that Afghanistan is on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. The truth is, it’s barely ever stepped out of one.

For most of my lifetime the country of my birth, Afghanistan, has been in a perpetual state of war.

As a female Afghan Shia minority, had my parents not fled Kabul when they did and if Australia hadn’t generously accepted us under its Refugee Humanitarian program, who knows what fate would have been today.

I find myself reflecting on the privilege lottery that has been so good to my family but so cruel to many others. I often reflect on how each of us had no choice over the place or circumstances of our birth and yet because of it, some of us may never have to face the harsh realities my fellow Afghans are facing today.

For my mother who has extended family in Afghanistan, this whole ordeal is very triggering, amplifying existing anxieties associated with life in lockdown in Sydney.

While many of us are shocked at the speed at which the Taliban were able to take hold of the country – a little less than a week – few are surprised that Afghanistan is now yet again in this situation after decades of foreign intervention by countries who have a track record of meddling in the Middle East.

Several commentators have highlighted the bleedingly obvious; this current crisis in Afghanistan was almost two decades in the making.Advertisement

On the whole the US led invasion and subsequent decades-old war (and an alleged rebuilding of a nation – a job the US started but never completed) have been a costly failure on the part of foreign interveners from all political stripes.

The anger and hurt many of us feel is palpable as the reality is that the Taliban would have not risen to have such power and influence, had they not had initial backing from western forces. Combined with a complex multitude of ethnic factions, a power vacuum, an already largely corrupt government weakened further by every attempted invasion/takeover and the international onslaught that follows – Afghanistan has become a country ripe for exploitation from all angles.

To witness what feels very much like a western abandonment of Afghanistan on mass scale is infuriating.

No matter the alleged well intentions of many, we cannot plant the seeds of war, water them, witness the deterioration, strip the country of its dignity, and then withdraw without a well-thought-out exit strategy.

The countless atrocities in Afghanistan did not occur in a vacuum. Several countries (you know who you are) played a vital role in militarising Afghanistan over the 1980s and fuelling the political instability that has plagued the country.

The costs in terms of lives lost is catastrophic – a painful harsh reality many of our Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian and many other sisters and brothers are very familiar with, especially when you consider the disturbing fact that US has been at war 225 out of 243 years since 1776, that’s 92 % of the time since its birth.

The UN and aid agencies are preparing for a Syria-scale refugee crisis. Minority groups, especially the Shia Hazara are bracing themselves as they are prime targets. Women’s organisations are appalled at the subjugation of Afghan women and girls (and yet so often this issue is viewed through a white saviour lens).

Let’s not forget that like the rest of us, Afghans are also battling Covid19 at the same time, but without access to luxuries we in the west are so blessed to have at our disposable.

The mental health toll of this catastrophe is immeasurable, both for Afghans fleeing and those of us already abroad. For a community who already battles with the taboo surrounding mental health, many will not know how to cope.

I don’t know what the future holds for my country and the truth is, I don’t have all the answers.

The Taliban claim to have changed and modernised but their ideological extremism and patriarchal foundations would suggest otherwise. Patriarchy in all its forms seems to continue to be an insurmountable obstacle that holds women hostage and everywhere that it rears its ugly head, misogyny pursues.

People run after and cling to a moving US military plane leaving Kabul airport.

The Afghan people are not homogenous and have differing perspectives on the unfolding crisis. I am not a military or geopolitical expert.

It’s promising to hear (albeit unconfirmed) reports that there appears to be an Australian rescue mission afoot, to evacuate Australian citizens and Afghans who worked with Australian troops, such as interpreters and security guards, as well as their family members. It is also encouraging that the government plans on expanding the number of Afghans who are eligible to receive visas to include individuals who had less formal links to the Australian government during the decades-long conflict. But we must do more.

Australia was one of the first in 2001 to join the US-led intervention and we have a moral and ethical obligation to help. Australia must show leadership where the US has failed. Moves from the world community to cut and run from Afghanistan are a grave mistake. They betray the many people who have sacrificed so much over the last 20 years to help forge a better future for Afghanistan.

It must noted however that cries for humanitarian aide and assistance should not be interpreted as an invitation for a standalone western-led military response.

Instead, the focus must be on an international coalition, which centres the voices of Afghans themselves, providing humanitarian aid and applying well-thought-out strategic political pressure.

When the dust settles on this, Afghanistan will no longer be in the headlines.

The millions of Afghans who will lose their lives will continue to be nameless and we will all get on with our lives. But the lessons will still not have been learned. And history is doomed to repeat itself.

“In front of our eyes, they beat my sister”

Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence against women.

So many have asked me about the plight of women in Afghanistan. I am not going to cite statistics. I am not going to cite numbers. I will however re-tell the story of my sister-in-law who just relayed this to me. In her own words…

It was about 3am on a cold Afghanistan morning. My family and I lived in a small village in the province of Herat. I was about five years old. We heard loud banging and then I heard screams.

My sisters and I ran into the living room. We feared the worst, especially as my father was away on a work trip, and we felt even more vulnerable. We had heard about how local militia groups would barge into homes trying to kidnap young men or worse, kill them if they were not able to meet their demands.

My mother told my brothers to flee. And flee they did, by the time the militia group had barged into our home, broken the door and all that was in their path, my brothers had left via the backyard.

Several men stormed into our home – there were so many, I couldn’t count them – there were at least 20 of them. They were holding machine guns and had masks over their mouths – all we could see were their eyes. I had never seen my mother look so terrified as she did that night.

What unfolded in the next 30 minutes or so will forever be etched in my memory.

My mother, assuming, they were there for my brothers told them she had no sons. She pleaded with them not to hurt her and young daughters.

“We are not here to take your men,” they declared.

Turning their attention to my 20-year-old sister, they yelled that they had warned her many times – “How dare she continue to teach at the local school!” While there women who were teachers in other provinces, the small village we lived in Herat, my sister was one of a few female teachers. Little had we realised that their taunts and threats passed on to us via random people were in fact real. Could this really be happening?

There in front of our eyes, they beat my sister so hard. Trying to drag her out the door, my mother pleaded with them to not take her. She offered herself up and told them to take her instead.

“No” they screamed, they needed to ‘teach women a lesson that this behaviour was unacceptable!’. The screams, the yelling, the chaos. It was indescribable. My sisters and I, aged between 5 to 14 years old, watched on in complete shock and horror. It’s like time had stood still. I was screaming but it felt like no noise was coming out.

That was the last time we saw my sister. To this day, we do not know whether she is dead or alive. No police or other government authorities were able to do anything in the days, months and years that followed.

About two years later my father passed away, leaving my mother to look after all of us on her own.

My 40-year-old sister who witnessed it all that night, is still living in Herat with her young family. Offering her reassurance over the phone is all I can do for her. I fear for her safety. I fear that she too could be forever taken from us. She knows all too well just what the Taliban is capable of.

Such is the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan. In the past three months alone, 900,000 people have been displaced. Many of these are women and children. What are our leaders doing to make sure this doesn’t become the fate of more women in Afghanistan?

Editor’s note: Do not look away. To read more about the way women and children are treated by Taliban please read this piece and this piece, published by academics writing for The Conversation website over the last 48 hours.

And if you can, give generously to Mariam’s campaign on behalf of the UN Refugee Agency – Australia for UNHCR.

Feature image: The Taliban does not want women and girls to be educated. Photo depicts The Female Experimental High School in Herat. Picture: World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Protesters’ cries for freedom ring hollow for dying woman

Adriana Midori Takara was just 38 when she died from COVID-19 this week. She was only a year older than I am and had no underlying health conditions. Her first COVID test was negative and then a few days later, when she was tested again, it was positive. Ten days later, she was dead.

Last Saturday, protesters were walking past Royal Prince Alfred Hospital – where Adriana was dying – chanting “freedom”. Little did they know that as they were punching police horses and shouting from the rooftops, NSW would lose yet another young person to the deadly Delta variant only hours later.

Adriana Midori Takara, 38, died after contracting the coronavirus.
Adriana Midori Takara, 38, died after contracting the coronavirus.CREDIT:FACEBOOK

On the other side of Sydney, in the early hours of Saturday evening, I was also at a hospital. It was just after 2am. Dressed in my PJs and anxious as hell, there I was walking into the emergency department of my local hospital with my three-year-old son in my arms. His temperature was 40 degrees and he had what looked like hives all over his body.

Fast-forward 12 hours in hospital, multiple tests, IV drip and a sleepless night, they cleared him of COVID but were still not 100 per cent certain about his condition. Doctors suspected a nasty viral infection may have been the cause.

My seven-year-old daughter and I are self-isolating at home having done yet another drive-through COVID test.

Adriana was the eighth person in NSW to die after contracting COVID-19 during the latest outbreak. Her family was forced to say their goodbyes via Zoom. Her loved ones couldn’t visit her as she was dying but thousands of protesters were walking outside her room only hours earlier. I just can’t fathom the absurdity of it all.

Do people not realise that the Delta variant of COVID-19 is not only far more transmissible than its predecessors but it appears to be more lethal to people of all ages?

I am sick of hearing arguments defending the rights of the protesters to protest at a time like this. Freedom is a double-edged sword. It’s not absolute.

Your right to swing your arm in the air stops where that arm has the potential to strike my face. You have a right to walk wherever you like but that right does not extend to walking over me. Your right to willingly put yourself at risk of COVID-19 doesn’t trump my right to remain protected from it.

The best way we can achieve freedom at this time is to stay home, seek medical advice and get vaccinated. Rest in peace, Adriana Midori Takara.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer and diversity practitioner.

Please do not tell us to ‘pray away’ our mental health issues

You don’t need to see a psychologist. Just pray.” A well meaning and otherwise caring individual said these words to me. At a time when I was very clearly struggling with my mental health, this was a painful reminder of how so many people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and faith communities are widely misguided and uninformed when it comes to mental health and well being. This deep lack of awareness severely hinders treatment and early diagnosis, which results in victims suffering in silence.

As has undoubtedly become the case for so many contemporary issues we face, people are told to simply “pray it away”. Whilst I do not seek to even remotely dismiss the role faith plays in helping people from all walks of life, myself included, to cope with whatever life throws their way, spiritualising one’s mental health issues can have grave and dangerous consequences.

There was a time when I was relatively ignorant about mental health issues. I knew very little. I had never set foot in a psychologist’s office, nor did I think I would ever have to. Little did I know that my life would soon be changed and I would become intimately familiar with the comfortable lounges, jugs of water and tissue boxes that seem to grace psychologists’ offices.

In early 2015, I became the victim of a vicious cyber bullying campaign that reached epic, international proportions, remnants of which are still present today. At the peak of my struggles in early 2015 I was experiencing nausea, dizziness and episodes of vertigo. A colleague once had to escort me to my chair at work because she’d seen me walk into a filing cabinet only moments before. I couldn’t walk down steps without risk of hurting myself. I didn’t want to see anyone or speak to anyone. I wanted to be alone all the time and when I was alone, I wanted to escape my thoughts. No state of solitude was ever satisfying. I felt a hollow emptiness and sheer, unrelenting pain. It lasted initially for six weeks. Six, painful weeks when I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.

In that time I went to five different doctors, including an otolaryngologist (head and neck specialist) and a neurologist. I had my ears tested, my heart tested and my brain function tested and in the end – it seemed the cause of my physical illnesses was anxiety. I vividly remember the palpable relief I felt and an almost instant easing of my physical conditions when I finally managed to speak to a psychologist. At the time it seemed odd to me, that my physical conditions were manifestations of anxiety and depression.

Since that period, anxiety and at times, depression has become like a distant relative who insists on visiting at the most inconvenient times and always over stays their welcome.

While I’ve received incredible unconditional support from my loved ones each and every time, there’s no denying that there is still a huge culture of silence that surrounds this issue.

The unfortunate stigma associated with mental health issues is particularly prevalent amongst CALD and faith communities who may view it through a lens of stigma and shame. Some even consider those who struggle with their mental health as an indictment and so routinely dismiss it as a “lack of faith”.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the data very clearly demonstrates that people from CALD backgrounds do not seek out voluntary mental health services compared with those from non-CALD backgrounds. They are, however, disproportionately over-represented among those who are treated for mental health issues on an involuntarily basis. It seems they are less likely to seek treatment unless until they are in a desperate state, and so they are metaphorically dragged to the table kicking and screaming; even then, they will go to great lengths to keep it all private to supposedly “protect their family’s honour”.

As I’ve said to so many over the years, we turn to a medical professional to help us when we have a physical condition. We don’t simply just pray for a cure, so by the same logic, why are we so hesitant to seek help from a professional when we are presented with a mental condition? While spiritual healing can certainly support recovery, it cannot and must not be seen as an alternative to seeking professional help.

ortunately, there are a growing number of advocates who are speaking out and working tirelessly behind the scenes to disseminate knowledge about and further develop culturally appropriate services to cater for CALD and faith communities.

And in the poignant words of the talented poet and Mental Health advocate, Hawraa Kash “I am a trigger warning walking, with an uncertain heart beat, chanting that it’s ok not to be ok.” It certainly is, ok not to be ok but don’t do it alone. Don’t suffer in silence. Have faith that professional and culturally appropriate support is available to you to help you overcome the most challenging of mental health conditions.
Mental health support services:
Black Dog Institute
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Carers Australia 1800 242 636 – Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.
Headspace 1800 650 890 – a free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 – A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.
Mindspot Clinic 1800 61 44 34 – An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.
National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)
QLife 1800 184 527 – QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people.
Relationships Australia 1300 364 277- A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.
SANE Australia 1800 18 7263 – Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help carers.
Support after Suicide
Source: Beyond Blue

Equality For Women Does Not Mean Oppression For Men

You can’t be oppressed when another group is merely gaining rights you exclusively acquired by default decades ago.

I recall a conversation I was having with two senior managers about Corporate Australia’s shift to focus on cultural diversity within its leadership ranks. One of them was a woman of Asian Australian heritage; the other, a colleague of hers, a man of Anglo-Celtic origin.

It was in the context of this discussion, in which the man turns to her and says: “There you go, another leg up for people like you”.

The shocked and hurt look on her face will be permanently etched into my memory. She didn’t say a word but I couldn’t let that go. I responded: “When you extend a hand to someone who for too long has been walking in the gutter, while you’re comfortably strolling the streets, that’s not a leg up or a hand out – it’s simply levelling the playing field”.

And then I did a Wonder Woman pose and walked off. Okay, so the last part didn’t happen.

Image: Getty.

That man’s remarks, it turns out, whilst fairly brazen, are not uncommon.

According to a new landmark study from the 50/50 Foundation at the University of Canberra, while 88 percent of Australians agree that gender equality is still a problem, 46 percent of the men surveyed believe that the adopted measures do not take men into account or, put another way, they feel like their man-given rights are being eroded.

It’s no surprise of course, because “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” (Quote by unknown).

But you can’t be oppressed when another group is merely gaining rights, you exclusively acquired, by default, decades ago. Perhaps the trepidation some men are feeling is because they fear that they will be treated how women have been treated for centuries?

Needless to say, the report findings fuelled the usual debate across social media.

As one Twitter user put it to me (let’s call him ‘David’ for now) “… how can you expect millennial males to suffer discrimination for the wrongs of history, which they did not commit?”

What you’re really saying is that you want the system to continue to operate in an unjust manner which advantages men over women because it’s not your individual fault that David, Peter and John built a system which advantages other Davids, Peters and Johns. I didn’t select those names randomly – there are fewer women in top jobs than there are actual Davids, Peters and Johns.

L to R: David, Peter John, David, Peter… Image: Getty.

What you’re really saying is that you’ve found a large bag of money which doesn’t belong to you, but you’re just going to hang on to it, instead of returning it the authorities.

Balancing the gender equality scales is not a historical issue nor is it about punishing one gender over another. It’s not about attributing fault. It’s not about revenge. It’s about justice – pure and simple.

The injustices and barriers to full equality are still flourishing today and the barriers are amplified for women from minority groups who have to face not only a glass ceiling, but a double glazed one at that. And no, they are not lacking in merit. That argument was blown out of the water long ago.

Countless studies have shown how unconscious institutional bias operates to advantage men, and particularly those of an Anglo-Celtic background. How else do you explain that once “blind” (or a better term, ‘anonymous’) recruitment practices were adopted, the chances of women advancing to key positions were exponentially increased?

Whether it’s musicians in orchestras or executives in boardrooms, remove the bias creating attributes of human beings, like their gender, race, sexuality, etc. and the pendulum seems to swing towards equality.

And is it not ironic that those who claim that their selections are based on merit tend to hire people just like them? Affinity bias is an actual thing, you know.

You can’t argue that you have more merit when all you have are more privileges. If you, whether advertently or inadvertently threw a cover over one side of a newly planted garden bed, which resulted in sunlight and rain water not reaching them, curtailing their growth, you can’t claim that the other side of the garden bed, which produced healthier and taller flowers, are just of a better, more meritorious variety.

Here’s the thing, you can’t address inequality equally. In order to tip the scales of equality back to balance, the side weighing it down must return to a state of equilibrium.

Throughout history, humanity has sought to right historical wrongs. Sometimes you have to give your seat up on the bus and sit further back because it’s the right thing to do.

And at that point, the question is not, ‘why I am not getting the unearned privileges I was previously afforded by virtue of my gender’?

The question is, why does my fellow human being not have access to the same equitable opportunities and privileges that I’ve had access to and continue to benefit from?

Mariam Veiszadeh is a Diversity & Inclusion Consultant and did a TEDx talk on Rethinking Privilege.  


Article originally published at Ten Daily 




I arrived in Australia as a seven year old and I’m still grateful

Twenty seven years ago, on this day, my family and I first arrived in Australia on board a Qantas plane. 

Given all that we had endured, grateful is understatement when it comes to describing how we felt.We finally had a home we could adopt as our own. A home that would allow us to escape the horrors of the past. 

I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan you see, during the Soviet War in 1984.

I, like every other human being living on this earth, didn’t exercise any choice in where, or the circumstances in which I would be born. 

The intensity of the Soviet war drove my family and I to flee Afghanistan in 1988. 

Our journey took us from Kabul to India, to the Czech Republic, followed by Germany and then finally Australia, where we were granted asylum in 1991 under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian program. 

I remember being enrolled in school both in India and Germany, each time making new friends and learning a completely new language. I remember how much I cried because we had to leave all of my toys behind in India.  

And then I remember being gutted not being able to stay in Germany, having to say goodbye to my friends and our snow-fighting adventures.  

Coming to a new foreign land is never easy but I remember the warmth of my ESL teacher Mrs Browne at Penrith South Public school. She made us, all of us, feel welcome. She helped teach me to speak English but unbeknown to her, she did more than that – she effectively taught me to believe in myself.  

She helped to inject a confidence in me that our years of travelling from one country to another had sucked out of me. 

Now when I reflect on my humble beginnings, it is still unbelievable to think that I arrived in Australia as a shy seven year old who couldn’t speak a word of English. 

I am grateful for all of the opportunities and privileges afforded to me and I know that being able to call Australia our home has been instrumental in enabling me to become the woman that I am today. And for that privilege, I am grateful. 

I cannot begin to imagine what life would be like if I was back home in Afghanistan. 

Now, I hear the naysayers and my ‘troll base’ scream out, “but you’re not grateful!…you’re always pointing out racism and bigotry etc etc, why can’t you just shut up and be grateful”. I am not exaggerating here for dramatic effect – I have words to this effect written to me almost on a weekly basis.  

It’s worth noting that there are also those lone voices, on the other side of the spectrum, that will label me a sell-out for merely putting the words grateful and Australia in the one sentence. 

My work in the Diversity and Inclusion space in recent times has forced me to more profoundly reflect on my own levels of privilege and that of those around me. I’ve felt compelled to unapologetically, hold up a mirror and to call out the grossly unfair double standards applied to different members of society.  

Just as we can clap hands and skip at the same time, we can be grateful while speaking about our history and pointing out injustices. They are not mutually exclusive. And for a person of colour, voicing one’s opinion, no matter how unsavoury you may find it, shouldn’t come with a greater price tag than everybody else.

So today I’m sitting back and reflecting on that day 27 years ago with gratitude.

What I cherish most about Australia is that we are continually trying to better ourselves as a nation. We are proud of who we are yet we have the confident humility to know we can always strive to be better.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, writer and advocate.

Originally published at SBS Life


The beauty of unpronounceable names is that we all eventually learn them

MARIO! Mario!” The barista is calling out a coffee order. I’m half asleep so it doesn’t register. “Mario? Skinny flat white”. It dawns on me then – he means me. It’s my coffee order!

OMG. How embarrassing. I walk over; he takes a look at me and then at the coffee and realises their cashier has totally butchered my name. He apologises. I politely say thank you, pick up my coffee, my ego off the ground, and walk off.

“It’s OK,” I think to myself. I’m used to it. Worse still was the time I ordered my coffee using the Hey You app which clearly displays my full name – correct spelling and all – and the considerate barista thought he’d Anglicise my name for me – it had “Mary” written on the cup.

Do you remember that feeling as you’re sitting in roll call at school and your teacher is yelling out a list of each of the students’ names, and then there’s that infamous pause and you just know that they are about to butcher yours?

Are you nodding? Or maybe you’re like, “nope I can’t relate.” That means you probably have a pronounceable name – by Western standards anyway.

My name, you see, is Mariam Veiszadeh. No not, Miriam (I get that A LOT), not Maria, not Mary, definitely not Mario, but MAAARIAM. As for my surname, oh boy – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer would have no hope in hell trying to utter it, ever.

It’s Veiszadeh. Not Visydeh, Versace, Veh-veh-veh –?

Look, I get it. It’s not easy – not even by ethnic standards. (I can say that because I’m ethnic.)

But having a name like mine does have its perks. You never have to worry about someone else having the same Gmail address or Instagram handle. As a work colleague once pointed out to me, “your name is unusual enough for me to be able to easily find you in the directory”. (PS: Please don’t say that to people, especially ones you’ve just met).

But yeah, being different ain’t always cool. Just ask Emma Alberici, Neel Kolhatkar, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Magda Szubanski or Gladys Berejiklian about how many times well-intentioned people have butchered their names before they finally got it.

These are the brave folks who persevered and didn’t give in to the urge to change their names or Anglicise them – and now, after years of practice, we just know how to say their names.

The thing is not everyone who changes, shortens or Anglicises their names is doing it because their names are unpronounceable. Some are doing to avoid or reduce discrimination.

“Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing as discrimination,” I hear you say! Well, an ANU 2009 study found that someone with a Chinese-sounding name typically must submit 68 per cent more applications than a person with an Anglo-sounding name to get the same amount of call backs and therefore land a job interview.

And if you’re Middle Eastern, not only are you more likely to be randomly selected for a bomb test at the airport, but to get the same number of interviews as a job applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, you must submit 64 per cent more applications. An Indigenous applicant 35 per cent more, and an Italian applicant 12 per cent more applications.

With odds like that, it is entirely understandable why some feel the need to go from Ming to May or from Mohammed to Michael because you just can’t beat unconscious (or in some cases conscious) bias in the recruitment process.

The fact that people from the above named ethnic groups are less likely to advance to leadership positions once they make it through the recruitment process is a topic that we will have to leave for another day. Needless to say if you don’t see folks with unpronounceable names in the top ranks of society, there’s even less incentive to retain the names given to you at birth.

But what if your parents named you North West – surely you should be able to change that when you’re older, I hear you say? Hey, this is a judgment-free zone.

It’s a sad reality that on the top of the usual anxieties that new parents battle with, some have the added problem of having to worry about their name selections – trying to settle on names that will less likely result in bullying and discrimination in the playground and beyond.

In an era where parents try to be different by naming their child a variant of popular names like Sophia (who knew that Sophia could be spelt at least 10 different ways?) – let’s truly embrace difference and let us encourage others to be proud of their identities.

Most importantly, let us become conscious of the role each of us play in society in ensuring that we don’t merely tolerate difference, be in it in name or otherwise, but rather, we celebrate it.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 June 2917

Death threats in the virtual world meant I had to worry about my safety in the real one

The death threats in the virtual world meant that I had to worry about my safety in the real one.

A suspicious package was delivered with your name on it, I was told.

I received the call whilst sitting at my desk at work. My local Police Detective, with whom I’m regularly in contact, and whom I’m sure must be sick to death of hearing from me so frequently, said that the tenants living in my old apartment, who had been forewarned about possible threats, received a suspicious package.

The Bomb Squad was apparently contacted. The package was carefully opened – it had a rather unique odour, I am told.

In it, was bacon — yes, bacon — meticulously wrapped in Gladwrap. The tenants had been away on holidays and returned home only to be greeted with bacon in the mail. Oh, how they must have cursed me in that moment.

I sunk back into my seat at work, a sudden feeling of nausea came over me, the feeling you get just before you want to throw up. Everything around me, the noise, my colleagues, my computer screen faded into the distance. It suddenly went quiet – it dawned on me then. These guys weren’t just keyboard warriors. These were not mere empty threats.

Some imbecile had summoned up enough energy to wrap bacon in Gladwrap and send it in the mail. I mean, WHO does that, seriously?

mariam veiszadehBigoted, Neo-Nazi and white supremacists groups have been trolling Mariam – on and off – for years.

Weeks before it, there had been internet chatter on right-wing websites – bigots based in the US and across the globe were discussing how they could mail bacon to my home address without getting caught (luckily they were under the impression that I still lived in my old unit).

But why, you ask?

Bigoted, and more recently Neo-Nazi and white supremacist, groups have been trolling me — on and off — for years. There’s been periods in which they closely monitor my online movements. They often take screenshots of what I say and some have even produced a YouTube video over-analysing my tweets (I’m honoured folks, really, you shouldn’t have). I’ve had at least five imposter accounts set up on Twitter and 2 on Facebook in the last year – each account would use almost identical versions of my name and photo.

The worst of the online cyber-bullying started after I weighed into the public debate about the notorious Woolworths T-shirt – which had an Australian flag and ‘Love it or Leave’ splashed across it.

mariam veiszadeh
The Woolworths shirt that sparked national controversy.

Whilst I received some stock-standard vitriol following those series of tweets, the barrage of abuse really ramped up once the Australian Defence League (ADL) singled me out on their Facebook page, some three months later. They mischievously cropped a screenshot of my tweets suggesting that I was somehow against the Australian flag. Talk about delayed reaction or opportunistic fear mongering.

Cutting a long story short, the ADL post opened the floodgates to a torrent of online abuse. This was in fact a turning point. Hate, well and truly, begets hate.

A 22-year-old Queensland woman, seeing the inciting ADL post, sent me an absolute barrage of abuse.


mariam1EDITEDAfter a lengthy police investigation, she was charged for using a ‘carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence’. She was sentenced in May to 180 hours community service. The sentence was considered to be groundbreaking. I have since lodged a compliant via the Australian Human Rights Commission, which is currently on foot, and have considered other legal options.

And so the saga continued, when the media attention generated by her case, then somehow made its way to a Neo-Nazi and White Supremacists group based in the US called the Daily Stormer.

They published an article, falsely claiming that I got a woman ‘arrested’ for ‘hurting my feelings’. They unashamedly urge their alleged ‘5000’+ strong followers to “flood” my twitter account with as “much racial and religious abuse as they possibly can.”

They have also published a great deal of my personal details online –prompting abusive phone calls, SMS, mail, emails and social media vitriol.

mariam veiszadeh
Joshua Ryne Goldberg posed as Neo-Nazi blogger “Michael Slay” and ISIS jihadist “Australi Witness”, among other personas.

I didn’t know then what I know now – that the man behind the vile Daily Stormer campaign was allegedly US-based, Jewish-American troll named Joshua Ryne Goldberg. Goldberg was recently arrested by the FBI for distributing information relating to explosives and destructive devices to facilitate a possible terrorist act in the United States. He had been allegedly masquerading as a Neo-Nazi blogger called “Michael Slay” on the Daily Stormer site, publishing an incredibly vile and abhorrent piece on me.

Amongst his many online personas, he had also posed as “Australi Witness”, a fake ISIS-affiliated jihadist from Australia, who tried to claim a friendship with me, later admitting that he intended only to smear my reputation.

The death threats in the virtual world then meant that I had to worry about my safety in the real one. During the height of the social media vitriol and the ‘international’ cyber bullying campaign, I had police patrolling outside my house overnight – they were taking the death threats that I had received very seriously.

I didn’t know how to take the threats. The rational version of me, thought (rather unconvincingly) that these were just threats from ‘keyboard warriors’ – but the irrational, slightly deranged version of me was worried sick. I kept thinking, has my volunteer advocacy work put my family at risk? Needless to say, I cried myself to sleep that first night.

mariam veiszadeh
The Reclaim Australia group have been vocal in harassing Mariam.

And the memes – my Lord, the memes have been creative!

Bigots-R-Us have created and posted memes of me on several anti-Muslim hate pages, including Reclaim Australia pages. It seems that I had become the Islamophobes’ favourite poster child.

Whether it was the images of me cuddling a decapitated pig’s head, with a message that they’d behead my mother and I and bury us all with pigs, or the one that depicted me being stoned to death, along with a cropped image of me lying dead on the floor, with rocks surrounding me and photo-shopped blood dripping down my cheeks, they were utterly sickening

Following the rise of the Reclaim Australia movement, my name, images and tweets were increasingly being used as propaganda. Suddenly I had becomes the unwilling sacrificial lamb (halal of course) of the anti-Islamic movement and the epitomic symbol of the Australian Muslim.

In the lead up to the second round of Reclaim Australia rallies across the country, a self declared Reclaim Australia supporter sent me death threats. By now, I had become accustomed to death threats (many of which would come from untraceable accounts).


mariam veiszadehThe Police took out an AVO against her and she recently charged with using a carriage service to harass, menace and cause offence and also fined $1000. At the time, I had broken the story to a trusted journalist but I had insisted that the identify of the offender be not disclosed.

The 37-year-old woman, who clearly was not very tech-savvy, had some images of her children on her social media accounts and they were all publicly accessible. A simple Google search would have exposed her and her young, innocent, children to public scrutiny and my conscience couldn’t allow that.

My reasons for publicising the story was two-fold. 1) I felt that it served as an important deterrent for those who thought they could hide behind a veil of anonymity when it came to sending vicious threats and vitriol over social media (the more sophisticated trolls still do unfortunately) and 2) I wanted it to serve as an inspiration to others facing similar situations to speak out and take action and hold their perpetrators to account. Many still are unaware of their legal rights, albeit they are somewhat limited, when it comes to cyber-bullying offences.

This whole ordeal has been honestly exhausting. I know that I am stronger than the sum of all of the hate directed at me. I know this because I am my mother’s daughter – resilient, tenacious and strong. I am also human, vulnerable, sensitive and not immune to the physiological effects and mental strain that cyber-bullying has placed on me.

mariam veiszadeh
Image via Twitter.

During the peak of the craziness, the experience was extremely harrowing and all consuming – the impact had extended to my family, my friends and on my work.

I suffered from prolonged anxiety, forcing me to take time off work. I had periods of dizziness and vertigo, which all in all, last about six weeks. In that period, I went to 5 different Doctors, including a neurologist. I had my ears test, my heart tested and my brain tested and in the end – it seemed the cause of my physical illness was ultimately anxiety.

Reflecting back on it now, it was by and large one of the most difficult experiences that I’ve had to endure. It’s difficult for me to reflect back on that period, without bursting into tears.

This ordeal has tested me in ways I never thought possible, but it has also strengthened my resolve to keep advocating for a more just world.
Originally published here:

Religion and the Racial Discrimination Act: Don’t Muslims Also Deserve Protection?

A decade-long national study conducted by the University of Western Sydney found that nearly half of Australians describe themselves as having anti-Muslim attitudes.

These findings could hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the sheer amount of blatant Islamophobia that is reported through the Islamophobia Register Australia.

I myself have struggled tremendously, both physically and mentally, after being singled out by the Australian Defence League, and finding myself on the receiving end of death threats and near-constant online bile.

This is part and parcel of being a visible Muslim in Australia today, who quickly become the target of social media vitriol, verbal abuse and physical assaults every time someone or something even remotely associated with Muslims or Islam is thrust involuntarily into the media spotlight.

The word “Islamophobia” was coined because there was a new reality that needed naming – namely, anti-Muslim prejudice. Just to be clear, this is not a matter of theological debate and disagreement, much less criticism of Islamic teachings and practices. This is about bigotry, discrimination, abuse and, I will argue, racism.

Is Islam an ethno-religion?

The category of an ethno-religious group was created to cope with anti- Semitism as a special form of racism. This was the right move, in my view. This grouping was created because this particular group of vulnerable people went through a process of “racialisation” over time.

But it is time that we understood the ethnicised and racialised nature of Islam in Western countries, and recognise Islamophobia as a form of racism akin to anti-Semitism.

What exactly is racialisation? It is defined as the process by which groups are categorised and accorded certain phenotypic features that stems from their way of living. Ultimately, racialisation results in essentialism – it reduces people to one aspect of their identity and thereby presents a homogeneous, undifferentiated, and static view of an ethno-religious community.

Randa Abdel-Fattah, who has explored at length the various forms Islamophobia takes in countries like Australia, challenges the claim that Muslims cannot be the victims of racism because they are not a race. This claim, she argues, is based on an impoverished understanding of the history of race, racial formation and racism. She argues that the body-fixated theory that sustains a demarcation between race and religion ignores the enormous scholarship carried out that demonstrates the falsity of claiming that religious affiliations are never to do with the body, and that “race” is only to do with the body. She argues:

“that racial marking and racialisation do not depend on so-called biological attributes. Essentialising people on the basis of their outward appearance – whether it be skin colour, facial features, a headscarf, beard, an accent – is precisely how the process of racialisation works.”

While it is certainly true that being a Muslim is voluntary and not a biological trait per se – in the way that “African American” or “South Asian” or “European” is – as Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood point out, originally, neither was being “Jewish.” They argue that it was took a long, non-linear process of racialisation to turn an ethno-religious group into a race.

I am mindful that some may be insulted by any comparison of Islamophobia with anti-Semitism, on the grounds of the exceptionalism of the history of Jewish hatred in the West. I am, of course, not seeking to downplay the long history of persecution suffered by the Jewish communities.

The real issue, however, is the apparent double-standard, the anomalies and contradictions that are embedded in anti-discrimination legislation, which lead to unjust but legally compliant decisions whereby, for a complaint against comparable offences when religion is not a protected attribute, a Jewish person can obtain reparation while a Muslim cannot.

A prime example of such a double-standard is the 2002 case of a Muslim prisoner in New South Wales who filed a case when he was denied his request for Halal food in a private prison, knowing full well that his Jewish inmate obtained his Kosher meal when requested. The court stated that, since Halal food is of a religious element and religion is not covered under the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act (1977), therefore the case should be dismissed.

Such inconsistencies in the application of the law – whereby a religious dietary requirement was obtained by one religious group but denied to another – are highly problematic and demand some redress.

But, as Mariam Farida rightly argues, even if Muslims were considered an ethno-religious group, they may not be protected from religious discrimination under the law. Making reference to specific cases, she concludes that even if a party belonged to an acknowledged ethno-religious group, the court may only consider it a breach if the vilification was both on the grounds of ethnicity and religion, and not purely based on religion alone.

We thus need to consider whether having Islam categorised as an ethno-religion would actually achieve the intendedobjective.

The Racial Discrimination Act and religion

This leads inexorably to the question of whether the Racial Discrimination Act be amended so as to extend to religious vilification. Quite apart from the obvious body of opposition to such a proposition, I suspect that the likes of Andrew Bolt would have a hernia. He’d have to acquaint himself quite intimately with what it means to write something in “good faith”!

I acknowledge that there is a deep-seated resistance to include religion among the grounds covered by anti-discrimination laws. Interestingly, despite the fact that some Christian groups oppose religious vilification laws, the Australian Christian Lobby in its 2012 submission in relation to the Consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws proposed that religion be a protected attribute against discrimination, in order to remedy a substantial omission in the Commonwealth legislation.

In Australia, the states that cover religious discrimination in their legislations are Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory. I note that New South Wales contains Australia’s largest Muslim population, and yet they are not protected from religious vilification. Interestingly, the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act (1977) was amended in 1994 to add a reference to “ethno-religious.” The then NSW Attorney-General, John Hannaford, explained that “the effect of the amendment is to clarify that ethno-religious groups, such as Jewish people, Muslims and Sikhs, have access to the racial vilification and discrimination provisions of the Act.” The stated intention was, in fact, to cover Australian Muslims – but this never materialised.

One of the objections often raised against making religion a protected attribute under the Racial Discrimination Act is that religion is deemed strictly personal and tends to be chosen. This is true. Though it is important to point out that in circumstances where a person finds herself born to a Muslim family, with Muslim stereotypes and characteristics, then it could be argued that it is not a matter of choice anymore.

When examining this objection from a purely practical perspective, one does not choose the name they are given or the family into which they are born. One doesn’t choose to be named Mohamed Abdulla, for example. Yet, even if there were no other identifying features, this name alone is enough to identify a man as being a Muslim and therefore make him prone to being the subject of religiously motivated abuse.

Furthermore, researchers have made the point that one does not choose to be born a Muslim in a society where identifying as Muslim makes you the subject of suspicion and interrogation. If choice is the factor that precludes a Muslim from being seen as a victim of racism, then isn’t the logical conclusion to be drawn that such a choice is a bad one? If a Muslim is the victim of a hate crime but cannot seek legal recourse because the attribute that attracted the abuse is “chosen,” isn’t the clear message that concealing this choice – that is, being less Muslim – would go a long way towards preventing the abuse?

Sure, I’d cop far less abuse if I chose not to wear a hijab – but why should I be forced to make such a choice? One cannot help but feel that the victim is here being blamed or made to feel as though they are inviting the abuse. This line of moral and legal reasoning is deeply flawed, and is comparable to someone blaming a woman’s dress sense for her being the victim of sexual harassment.

The impact of Islamophobia

Where religious groups or individual believers are subject to vilification, it can have deeply hurtful effects and create considerable fear within religious communities. It also feeds into a vicious cycle. Islamophobia, if left unchecked, may serve to erect barriers to Muslim inclusion in Australia, increasing alienation, especially among young Muslims. Not only would such a situation do grave damage to our social cohesion, it would simultaneously expand the pool of recruits for future radicalisation. This factor is often ignored or overlooked.

Let me conclude by citing an article by my dear friend, Randa Abdel-Fattah:

“Do you want to know how it feels to be an Australian Muslim in the Australia of today?

“Then turn on the television, open a newspaper. There will be a feature article analysing, deconstructing, theorising about Islam and Muslims in which your fellow Australians will be offered the chance to make sense of this phenomenon called ‘the Muslim’.

“This is what it means to be an Australian Muslim today. It is to try to live against the perception that one represents a synonym for terrorism and extremism.

“It is to see the faith you embrace with such conviction defiled and defamed because acts that defy Islamic law and doctrine are still prefixed by the media with the word ‘Islamic’. It is to have the reasonable, peaceful statements of your leaders ignored and the ignorant ravings of the minority splashed across the headlines. It is to be the topic of talkback radio rant and raves.

“It is to come to accept that although atrocities are committed in the name of all religions around the world, it is Islam alone that will be judged by the actions of those who purport to be its followers. It is to refuse to lay blame for the behaviour of so-called Christians at the feet of Christ because you respect the intent of Christ’s words and actions and because you know that even those acting in his name are misguided.

“So what it means to be an Australian Muslim today is that you will often sit alone, in the silence of your hurt and fury, and wonder why it is so difficult for Islam, a religion followed by 1.5 billion people, all of whom cannot be uncivilised, unintelligent, immoral, unthinking dupes, to be treated with the same respect.”

Is it not unconscionable for some religious minority groups to be afforded legislative protections and other religious groups, who are also in desperate need of such protections, to be denied the same protections?

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, community advocate and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia. An earlier version of this article was presented to the RDA@40 Conference in Sydney, 19-20 February 2015.

Originally published  here:

We need to call out the double standards in Australia’s anti-discrimination laws

Over the past year, women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them, had hot coffee thrown in their face, told to leave an entertainment venue, assaulted and thrown off a train, verbally intimidated, had their cars vandalised and have been forced to restrict their public movements out of fear.

Some of these incidents took place in the presence of children. Some victims were heavily pregnant. Some victims complained that passers-by and witnesses failed to intervene. All of the victims were left traumatised – the experiences haunting them, each and every time they hear of yet another incident similar to theirs.

These women all have one thing in common.
“Over the past year, [Muslim] women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them.”

“Over the past year, [Muslim] women across the country have been assaulted, spat on, had their prams kicked, have been punched from behind, had abuse hurled at them.”

And no, they are not the victims of a domestic violence epidemic.

These women just happen to be Australian Muslims, many of them who have chosen to display their faith publicly by wearing a hijab or on some occasions, a niqab. This is their only ‘crime’.

Despite being part of the world’s second largest faith group, Muslim women in all parts of the Western world are singled out and targeted daily by those who continue to extrapolate the criminal actions of a minority to the entire 1.6+ billion followers of Islam.
A woman holds a placard during an anti-racism protest in Federation Square where Reclaim Australia, a community group, stages an anti-Islam rally at the same time in Melbourne,

A woman holds a placard during an anti-racism protest in Federation Square where Reclaim Australia, a community group, stages an anti-Islam rally at the same time in Melbourne, Photo: Getty Images

The fear, both debilitating and real, has been so great at times that citizens have taken it upon themselves to offer to escort Australian Muslim women in the aftermath of incidents which result in an inevitable backlash against Muslims.

Although groundswell movements like #Illridewithyou have helped cushion the backlash somewhat, the inevitable reality remains that being ‘visibly Muslim’ (or even ‘remotely Muslim’ in the online world) puts you at higher risk of being the victim of an islamophobic incident.

What’s more disturbing is that when I’ve sought to speak out about Islamophobia, in addition to many expressing concern, a rather alarming number of people expressly engage in victim blaming.

Having launched the Islamophobia Register late last year, a platform that collates incidents of Islamophobia across Australia, and having spoken directly to countless victims over the past year, I’ve witnessed first hand the absolutely terrifying impact the experiences have left on victims and their loved ones.

I often find myself playing the role of an investigator, legal advisor, counsellor, advocate and social worker. Having experienced long drawn out episodes of cyber bullying and near constant online hate myself, I find myself re-living my own anguish each time I speak to them.

As an advocate seeking to amplify the voices of victims of Islamophobia, I myself have become the target. I’ve been bestowed with the honour of becoming every Islamophobes’ favourite poster child.

It was these very experiences that I reflected upon, as well as highlighting the inadequacies in the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), in my address to the Australian Human Rights Commission, at its 40 years of the RDA Conference in February this year.

I specifically spoke about the fact that despite the alarming increase in the frequency and severity of incidents of Islamophobia, Australian Muslims were still not afforded adequate protection under Federal laws.

In NSW, which houses the largest percentage of Australian Muslims, legal protections would only apply, as an example, if one was abused as an “effing Lebanese Muslim” as opposed to an “effing Muslim” because clearly bigots pause to reflect on one’s ethnicity before letting loose. This same imposition is not required where Australian Jewish and Sikh communities are concerned.

We know that religion is often used as a pretext for what is, in reality, race discrimination. And the whole ‘I ain’t racist because Islam is not a race’ argument is getting old and is frankly, a cop out!

I’m sick of hearing the absurd argument that unless I condemn repeatedly and ad nauseam the atrocious acts committed by every Mahmoud, Abdul or Ahmed, I cannot speak out about acts committed against Zahra, Sara and Aisha.

What concerns me is the double standards, anomalies and contradictions embedded in anti-discrimination laws, which leads to ridiculously unjust but perfectly legal decisions whereby, for a complaint against similar offences when religion is not a protected attribute, a Jewish person can obtain protection while a Muslim cannot.

The National Consultation Report on the 40th anniversary of the RDA released by the Australian Human Rights Commission last week echos what many in the community, myself included, have been saying for a while – that Australian Muslim, whilst having to endure increased levels of biased motivated vilification and discrimination, have at best, “limited protection” under the RDA as religion is not a protected attribute and Islam is not considered an “ethno-religion” (unlike Judaism).

Legal experts are now calling on the Federal Government to consider how to better protect Australian Muslims.

The cynic in me thinks that it’s tough to imagine that there’s a huge amount of capital to be gained by any of the major political parties to consider legislating on this issue as they’d be effectively sticking their neck out for one of the most ‘disliked’ segments of the broader community – Australian Muslims.

I recognise the rather tricky intersection between race and religion and the complexities associated with legislating on what is perceived as a non-biological trait – religion.

I note however that some academics are mounting the argument that increasing levels of Islamophobia in Australia has sped up a process of “ethnicisation” of the Australian Muslim community.

There have been suggestions that given that there is next to none political appetite to go down the legislative reform route, that perhaps a more realistic approach to secure legal protections would be for an impacted member of the Australian Muslim community to commence litigation to test the relevant provisions of the RDA or its state equivalents before a court (‘a test case’).

This might be a viable option but given sky rocketing legal expenses and the drawn out legal battle that would ensue, not to mention the potential associated trauma that one would have to endure – how realistic is this option? I know this because, given that I’ve been racially and religiously vilified myself, I have considered mounting my own ‘test case’.

In 2012, a proposed a draft bill, which sought to merge and simplify five existing anti-discrimination laws, including the RDA was shelved. More recently, some have floated the idea of a Multicultural Act.

Perhaps its time we commenced a national debate about how best to address these issues which, if left unaddressed can have significant broader and long-term implications.

It’s apparent that there are various options available – most seem to be lacking a vital ingredient however – political willpower.


Originally published here:

Scapegoating minorities may reap a bitter harvest

The non-toned down version of our opinion piece

As Lawyers, Mothers, and Australian Muslims, we are deeply committed to the rule of law, civil liberties and social cohesion. We rather hesitantly attended a Federal Government “consultation” on Tuesday regarding the Australian Citizenship and the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia Bill) 2015. This is despite our “engagement fatigue” in a context where many members of the Australian Muslim community are urging a total withdrawal from further engagement with the Abbott Government.

We were disappointed but not entirely surprised that key Muslim organisations and youth organisations seemed to be excluded from these face-to-face “consultations”. In fact, we only happened to have been invited on recommendation from a colleague in Melbourne. When we queried this – we were told that face-to-face consultations were “not a primary method of consultation” and that apparently, the mind numbing Citizenship paper was emailed to various organisations. That has been the extent of the rather shambolic “consultation” process regarding citizenship.

The fact that the Abbott Government’s extent of engagement with the Australian Muslim Community is largely confined to pressing send on an email, at a time where mistrust between the Australian Muslim community and the government is at an all time high, is incredulous to say the very least.

These semi-secret consultations, where the majority of attendees are cherry picked, are a reflection of the systemic disingenuous “consultations” held with the Australian Muslim community.

For the record, we do not believe that any amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act are necessary, proportionate or productive. Existing legislative provisions already equip the Government with rather robust ways in which to tackle the terrorism threat. In fact, we are very concerned that the amendments will result in “ex-citizens” becoming stateless, permit the indefinite detention within Australia of affected persons, breach our international legal obligations, contribute to global insecurity and allow a Minister to effectively play judge and jury.

The Bill, as well as the consultations regarding citizenship and the rhetoric used to frame them is nothing less of socially corrosive. The majority of the other participants present at Tuesday’s consultations broadly echoed these same sentiments.

If we continue to allow our political leadership to politicise national security, Australia risks reinforcing terrorist propaganda. The same propaganda that Australian Muslims are being asked to develop counter narratives to.

There is no evidence that this Bill will act as a sufficient deterrent – in fact it may risk making martyrs of those caught up by its tentacles who may parade it as a ‘badge of honour’. Daesh and their ilk will use it as propaganda to aid in their recruitment drive.

The Australian Muslim community, whom by default have become Australia’s most frequently used scapegoat of the last decade, have had to stomach some incredibly divisive rhetoric from the Prime Minister. Whilst Abbott’s gaffes often land him in hot water, his complete disdain and seemingly deliberate, irresponsible commentary surrounding Australian Muslims is not only deeply damaging but, in our view, contributes directly, a deep sense of alienation in many parts of the Muslim community.

Consider Abbott’s mischievous attempt to connect the abandoning of the s18C Racial Discrimination Act changes to the Muslim community (despite the fact that the provisions do not actually cover us), his “Team Australia” rhetoric (as specifically referenced in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s report title Gen Y Jihadists: Preventing Radicalisation in Australia); his indirectly labeling Australian Muslims as “migrants”, (nearly 40 per cent of Australian Muslims were born here), and perhaps the most offensive of all, his remarks around ‘western leaders describing Islam as a ‘religion of peace,’ and that he’d “wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.”

Well, we wish that Tony Abbott and his colleagues would admit “more often” that they are consciously peddling xenophobic views that demonise Australian Muslims because it pays political dividends, “and mean it”.

That’s not a simply a tongue in cheek remark, in 2011, the Immigration spokesman for the Opposition at the time, Scott Morrison allegedly urged his colleagues to capitalise on the electorate’s concerns about “Muslim immigration”, “Muslims in Australia” and the “inability” of Muslim migrants to integrate – a grudging admission that demonising Muslims will help them in the polls.

It goes without saying that we are as just as concerned about Australia’s national security and wish for nothing more but to raise our children in a safe and harmonious Australia.

It’s exhausting however, waking up and day after day, to a relentless (and often disproportionate) focus on terrorism and its implied or specified links to Islam and Australia’s almost 500,000 Muslims. Consider momentarily the impacts this reality has for young Australian Muslim children in particular, who are forced to grow up in an environment in which Islamophobia, which feeds radicalization has become mainstream.

Meanwhile three-quarters of Australians believe domestic violence is as much or more of a threat than terrorism, according to recent polling but our Prime Minister is too busy telling Australians that “ISIS are coming to get us” to notice. Even Malcolm Turnbull seems to be of the view that we risk overstating the terror threat.

During the consultation, government officials stated that “citizenship is a very different thing to what it was in 1948”. This is simply, untrue. Citizenship remains a right (with responsibility). Not a privilege. A right. To have our political leadership assert a contrary position is undemocratic and sets a foundation for an assumption of “unequal citizenship”. These nuances are repackaged by designated terrorist organisations for use in their propaganda.

We will not be the rubber stamps, the token consensus, or grateful for a seat at the table or a photo opportunity. We will not keep banging our heads silently against the brick wall in frustration. We cannot afford polite pussyfooting, as our country’s character, our international reputation, our security and frankly, lives are on the line. We suspect that the Australian Government is aware of that and that is the reason why attendees to consultations are cherry picked.

As we left the consultation, we were informed that a report will be prepared and furnished to Minister Peter Dutton and the Prime Minister’s Office. The main Government officials heading up the consultation were unsure as whether the submissions or the Report for that matter would ever be made public.

Scapegoating minority groups and engaging in chest beating about national security has never failed to serve as an effective political ‘distraction’. In fact, it’s worked wonders for previous governments who have faced an uphill battle in the polls. The Tampa/Children Overboard scandal helped effectively hand John Howard his 2001 election victory. Tony Abbott is, in our view, actively manufacturing his Tampa moment.

Mariam Veiszadeh and Lydia Shelly are both Lawyers and Community Advocates.

Published version:

Sydney siege: why my heart sank when I saw an Islamic flag

As a mother and a fellow Australian, I join the rest of the nation in grieving the loss of two innocent Sydneysiders who so tragically lost their lives in the Martin Place siege. My thoughts and prayers are with their families, the rest of the hostages and their loved ones. I went to Martin Place on Tuesday to lay flowers in their honour.

As this nightmare unravelled on Monday, my heart sank as I sat at my desk at work, hearing about the events occurring only a few streets away. I felt completely numb when I heard that the innocent hostages were forced to hold up an “Islamic flag”. With one grotesque act, 1½ billion Muslims were at risk of being dragged through the mud, deemed “guilty by association”, and religious symbols misappropriated.

Unable to contain my emotions, I wept uncontrollably in my team meeting at work as the sheer magnitude of this callous act and the unknown potential violence dawned on me. The love, compassion and unconditional support my colleagues showed me that day reaffirmed my belief that love will always triumph over hate.

I dreaded the calls that I would start receiving from the media – asking me to “comment” on the unfolding crisis, like I was somehow connected or responsible for this lone, mentally deranged gunman. I immediately thought, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t “comment”.

I then somewhat hesitantly roamed the streets of Sydney’s CBD with my work colleagues to find a taxi, which seemed like an impossible task. Being visibly Muslim, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I finally managed to find a taxi travelling in my direction and shared it with two lovely women named Michaela and Dixie.

The pain must have been visible on my face, as they comforted me with their words of solidarity and support. The taxi was unable to drop me off all the way home so Michaela insisted on driving me the final stretch to my door; a beautiful gesture from a complete stranger, which helped mend my heart. It is only later that I discovered the #illridewithyou hashtag, a social media campaign which not only helped restore my faith in humanity but reminded me that visible Australian Muslims would no doubt bear the brunt of the rampant Islamophobia which to some extent, will inevitably follow.

Racist groups have already started exploiting this unprecedented tragedy. Predators who foster ill will, division and hatred at a time of tragedy are sacrilegious to those who have lost their lives. It is socially irresponsible behaviour – whether it comes from racist groups or shock jocks.

How we respond to tragedies define us as a nation, as a community and as a people.

There are many unanswered questions, which will no doubt have complex and complicated answers. But in time, they must be asked and as a nation, we must have the frank conversation of what we want and how we will achieve it. In doing so, it is important that we challenge the prevailing narrative, free of hysteria. We must not give in to the temptation to demonise, stigmatise or alienate entire communities.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, community advocate and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald 17 December 2014

Muslim women scared to go outdoors in climate of hate

“I’m afraid of leaving my house with my young children because I don’t know how to protect both if them if someone attacked us.” So says a friend of mine – an otherwise confident mother of two.

“It wasn’t the physical altercation that hurt me, it was those words.” That’s another friend who was physically attacked by a man in Sydney’s CBD. He called her a “f—ing terrorist!” among other expletives.

“I just got spat on by some random freak.” And that’s yet another friend who was recently abused while walking in Central Station.

These are the experiences of Australian Muslim women who happen to wear their faith publicly.
In the past few weeks, visible Muslims have been the target of social media vitriol, verbal abuse and physical assaults. Even children are not spared: an Islamic school was targeted by a knife-wielding man.

Incidents of Islamophobia are plainly on the rise but the authorities would tell you otherwise.
Having recently set up Islamophobia Register Australia to collate reports of anti-Muslim sentiments, I have had dealings with members of the NSW Police Force.

A number of officers who have dealt with what the force labels “bias-motivated crimes” have expressed to me their deep frustration and utter dissatisfaction about the lack of funding and the lack of seriousness shown by their superiors in relation to efforts to monitor, report and combat threats and attacks against Australian Muslims. At present there is only one full-time officer working on bias-motivated crimes, along with a policy officer.

This is particularly alarming when bigoted groups such as Australian Defence League, Southern Cross Hammerskins, Blood and Honour Australia and Combat 18, alleged members of which were arrested for shooting at a mosque with a rifle in 2010, are on the rise and increasingly exploiting recent anti-Islamic sentiment.

One officer said he shared my concerns that the existing climate had the potential to lead to another Cronulla-style race riot. He even told me that he was worried that he might one day be summoned before a commission of inquiry to explain why he did not act on his concerns and do more to stop such a riot.

A number of officers have also confirmed what we in the community have been hearing anecdotally: a significant rise in the cases of verbal and physical abuse against Australian Muslims. These officers are genuinely trying to tackle Islamophobia but, with scarce resources, their hands are somewhat tied.

To my knowledge, a large proportion of Islamophobic incidents are unreported due to an alarming level of distrust towards the police among many in the Muslim community.

There also seems to be a strong hesitation by the police to publicly describe attacks against Australian Muslim for what they are: religiously motivated crimes. While it’s understandable that police don’t want to fan the flames of an already tense situation, the same caution and prudence is not shown in either the actions or the rhetoric surrounding suspected cases of terrorism.

The police raids played out like an episode of CSI on our TV screens. We were told that more than 800 officers were required to carry out Operation Appleby, which resulted in only two men being charged. Senator Scott Ludlam on the ABC’s Q&A eloquently asked us to “consider the silence around asylum seekers and the theatre around the terrorism raids”.

Let me make it very clear that I am as concerned as any other sound-minded citizen about an alleged plot to behead a member of the Australian public. After all, I could just as easily fall victim to a group who appear to be attacking anyone who does not pledge allegiance to their twisted ideology.
It’s in everyone’s interests to ensure that we live in a safe and harmonious society, but the approach and the political rhetoric must be proportionate. It’s about time that our politicians realised that they run the risk of playing directly into the hands of those whose activities they wish to curb by perpetuating and feeding the very isolation that feeds radicalisation.
Tony Abbott’s continual use of two or three-word slogans and analogies is an insult to our national intelligence. To borrow his sporting analogy of “Team Australia”: when a captain of a team exhibits poor conduct out on the field, he effectively implicitly sanctions bad behaviour by the rest of his “team”.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Prime Minister Abbott is deliberately peddling xenophobic views to garner electoral support. Consider his mischievous attempt to connect the abandoning of the s18C Racial Discrimination Act changes to the Muslim community, his “Team Australia” rhetoric, his indirectly labelling Australian Muslims as “migrants”, (as a side note, nearly 40 per cent of Australian Muslims were born here), his calling Muslim leaders “foolish” and “petty” for refusing to meet him, his responding to reports of protesters by saying that people came to this country because “they wanted to join us, not to change us” and the recent “burqa box” blunder.

Pulling out the race card and engaging in chest beating about national security has worked wonders for previous governments who have faced an uphill battle in the polls.

This is not to suggest that there is not a real threat, or that our authorities shouldn’t seek to take a strong stance against threats of terrorism. But the response needs to be proportionate and cannot come at the cost of us forgoing basic civil and human rights and demonising an entire faith group. This will inevitably lead to the social cohesion of this nation being irreparably damaged.
In times of crisis, we need to remind ourselves that we are all part of “Team Humanity”.

Despite visibly Muslim women bearing the brunt of rampant Islamophobia, the #WISH (Women In Solidarity with Hijabis) social media campaign (which seeks to counter these anti-Muslim sentiments by encouraging Aussie women to don a hijab as a gesture of solidarity) has reminded us that for every Senator Brandis-endorsed “bigot”, there are countless good Samaritans who offer us all a glimmer of hope.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, Welcome to Australia ambassador and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia and the #WISH social media campaign.

Originally published: October 11 2014, Sydney Morning Herald