When Mona El Baba was in high school, a teacher told her that she was “too stupid” to take a course in legal studies and that she was destined to be “another Muslim housewife”.
“He said, ‘If my mother saw you, she would spit on your hijab,’ El Baba said. “I never forgot that”.
According to a new survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission, 80% of Muslims living in Australia have experienced some form of unfavorable treatment because of their religion, race or ethnicity.
Half of all respondents had received unfavorable treatment from law enforcement or while looking for work. Some 29%, like El Baba, have been discriminated against in schools. And yet, despite this harassment, 74% of 1,017 respondents said they felt Australian and 63% said they found Australia welcoming.
El Baba is now 32 years old and is the Principal Lawyer and Founder of El Baba Lawyers in West Sydney.
She has been a victim of harassment on the basis of her religion for 20 years, having donned the hijab at the age of 12. She also represents others who have lost their jobs or have been harassed by the police because of their faith.
“I sometimes find that if I’m wearing the hijab, but I’m in a different part of town, I’m still being discriminated against,” she says.
The investigation was commissioned following the Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019, in which an Australian killed 51 worshipers. Seventy-nine percent of those polled said the terror attack made them fear they were in Australia, while 60% said they were not surprised that a mosque had been targeted .
A man who answered the survey said, “We are afraid as we stand for Friday prayer that this will be our last prayer.”
A young woman told the survey that she “felt like a target with my hijab on”.
“I didn’t want my family to come out. I just didn’t know how to keep anyone safe, but at the same time, I was too scared to do nothing.
Rita Jabri-Markwell, spokesperson for the Australian Muslim Advocacy Movement, says she hopes the investigation will encourage people to talk about the trauma of the Christchurch attacks.
“We don’t talk about it fully,” she said. “A lot of men in our community are very stoic about this… I think this will spark a lot of conversations around the Eid table about how it has affected us.
“The fact that he’s an Australian terrorist, he was born and raised here, and since the attack the Australian government has not really accepted that Islamophobia is a problem.”
There is a reluctance to recognize the role that Islamophobia in Australia had in the Christchurch attacks, Jabri-Markwell says.
“I think at some level people think it’s okay to discriminate against Muslims because of terrorism,” she said. “And that’s inherently racist. You can’t blame a whole bunch of people based on the actions of a few.
New South Wales has no civil law protection against discrimination on the basis of religion. Only Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have civil protections for both religious discrimination and religious defamation.
Sydney attorney Zaahir Edries is GetUp’s in-house lawyer. He says the lack of uniform legal protections for Muslims facing discrimination is representative of political culture in Australia, which has used Muslims as political football in anti-terrorism and immigration laws since 2001.
Edries was studying engineering at the University of Perth at the time. After the September 11 attacks, he says, peers and teachers began to treat him differently. “Even though I seem to do it, play all sports and do everything a good immigrant should do… it wasn’t good,” he says.
Edries was born in South Africa but has a large Australian accent. Before September 11, he was singled out for his skin color, or because he was a migrant, but never for his religion.
Subsequently, he became both a scapegoat and a spokesperson, supposed to explain and apologize for the activities of a small group of people halfway around the world. “Your relationship with the world immediately adjusts,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to hide my Islamic identity… but the questions you were asked – anyone could come to you and the curiosity that might have been present before was replaced by a sense of entitlement.
“I needed to reassure people about something that happened on the other side of the world, which had nothing to do with me, with my culture, with my education. Now all of a sudden you had to be an expert on everything that was going on in the world; an expert in geopolitics, in my faith. All these complex questions about their faith are not asked of anyone other than Muslims. “
The experience prompted him to go to law school.
Like Edries, Jabri-Markwell was a college student in 2001. She doesn’t wear a hijab and says many of her classmates didn’t seem to realize she was a Muslim.
“I heard racism but didn’t say anything. What was killing me from the inside was like drinking poison.
“I heard people in my class joke that we should just atomize the whole Middle East, destroy the Arabs like bugs. And I was setting there thinking, am I saying something or am I surviving?
Edries was fortunate, he says, to have been in his late teens in 2001, old enough to see how the political rhetoric around Muslims has changed and to see Islamophobia take hold. The youngest have never known the difference.
“We now have young adults who were born politicized,” he says.
Racial Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan said the report shows the need for urgent national attention to support Muslim communities and “improve social cohesion.”
“It is not enough to just condemn racism,” he says. “We need a coordinated strategy that works on many fronts to actively tackle racism at the different levels where it occurs.”