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Multiculturalism and women in Australia


By Imtiaz Gul

 Weekly Pulse, May 03, 2013


A Pakistan-origin Muslim, MehreenFaruqi, broke new grounds when the Australian Greens party appointed her to the Upper House in the New South Wales. Faruqi, a Muslim academic, will replace Cate Faehrmann, who will resign in June to run for a seat in the Senate. MsFaehrmann

welcomedMehreen’s nomination and said her Pakistani heritage not only breaks new ground for the Greens, but also it breaks new grounds for politics in NSW, and indeed the whole country. 

This way DrFaruqi also became the first Muslim migrant woman appointed to any parliament in Australia, and vowed to build stronger relationships between the Greens and migrant communities. 

New South Wales is home to 168,788 Muslims, about 4.96 percent of the total population, making the state a habitat to the largest Muslim population, according to the 2006 government Census.

Faruqi’s entry into the NSW Parliament denotes three important elements in the culturally diverse Australia. Firstly, a Muslim migrant female’s elevation to parliament reinforces this country’s commitment to gender-equality. Right now, an array of women find themselves in lead positions across Australia, led by the flamboyant prime minister Julia Gillard. Another lady Ms Quentin Bryce is the current Governor-General 2008, while Anna Burke is the assertive faced Speaker of the House of Representatives. Another impressive lady, Professor Gillian Triggs, heads the powerful Human Rights Commission.

Women in Australia got the right to both vote and sit in parliament in 1902 but it was only in 1943 that the first woman Dame Enid Lyons entered the House of Representatives. Women representation has however been more pronounced since 1980. In all, there have been 82 women in the Australian Senate and 86 women in the Australian House of Representatives since the establishment of Parliament of Australia. In the 43rd and current parliament of Australia i.e. House of Representatives and the Senate , as many 37 women represent a cross section of the Australian society.

Secondly, Australia has been able to address challenges that stem from the ethnic diversity that it is home to; one in four Australians born overseas. It has accepted nearly 800,000 refugees since World War-11 and ranks second in refugee settlement issues. Once accepted, citizens get plenty of opportunities and can rise to any levels; three Afghan-born Australians, for instance, recently joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is the result of the Australian policy-making centres’ acknowledgement of cultural diversity, and the need for integration of all those who choose to turn Australian into their homeland – regardless of where they come from. Issues relating to Afghan immigrants or those from other developing countries around Australian do keep surfacing every now and then to keep the media, the legal community and the human rights commission quite busy.

Ms Maryam Chaudhry, a vocal Pakistan-origin vice president of the Islamic Council of Victoria (Melbourne), explained in a recent interaction with visiting journalists that the Australian justice system was least racist and offered equal opportunities to every citizen. This also ensures prompt relief in cases of discrimination or attacks by Islamophobic groups. “Multi culturalism thrives off a legal democratic framework that provides unhindered access to justice, it also ensures that nothing is enforced on children by force,” said MsChaudhry, while drawing on an example from Pakistan.

“While kids in Pakistan take religion for granted, most youngsters in Australia do start with questioning because enquiry is the fundamental guiding rule for education,” said MsChaudhry, underlining that the open-to-all education system allows the younger generation to chart its own way, and because of this inherent element of enquiry i.e. education starts with equality and questioning. That is why, she argued, most of the younger generation has moved away from the “closed” culture that is so typical in Pakistan because of the antiquated educational structures.

Discussions with other Muslims underscored the fact that most of Muslim youth in particular are conscious of the fact that living in Australia means doing the right thing legally. Most also are quite clear that Muslimhood, Pakistanhood and being an Australian are not mutually exclusive. This is possible only in a non-conventional, enlightened and inclusive environment. Multiculturalism and a rational discourse among Australian Muslims thrives and stays primarily because of a clear diagnosis of the problems and an across-the-board application of a legal framework that treats all as equal citizens regardless of cast, creed, race or belief.

Seven National Board of Imams across Australia have also helped inculcate this spirit. These boards besides being spiritual guidance centres, adjudicate contentious matters and help the state in pursuing issues such as social cohesion, harmony, and the spirit of being an Australian first of all. And if something goes wrong, the powerful Human Rights Commission steps in to guarantee that fundamental rights of all citizens are upheld and protected. The third element relates to the acknowledgement that extremism is not restricted to the Muslim communities alone.

“We are pretty much focused not just on Muslims but on individuals from other smaller communities who could be prone to violence, who can develop intense ideas of violence after getting isolated,” Robert Dreyfuss, the attorney general told us. He pointed out that the government and the parliament are pushing for a multi-cultural media program so positive stories can emerge.

Australia’s current counter-extremism policies are rooted in the British experiences of deadly 7/7 subway terror incidents in London in 2005 as well as the Bali bombings in Indonesia (2005).

Before these incidents and extensive research into them, Australian Muslims, had also been viewed with suspicion and have had their patriotism questioned, almost the way Muslims in the USA and Canada endured humiliations in the aftermath of the tragic 9/11 bombings.

One of the lessons learnt from those incidents was to open communication channels to the migrant communities and Muslims in particular. As a matter of social obligation, Australian MPs and officials have been frequently talking to Muslim leaders and opinionmakers. Ministers spend a lot of time with Muslims in their respective regions in order to hear out their grievances, if any. This seems to have worked and underlines the consensus among the political elites on the need to engage, rather than estrange, the migrant communities.

Although Australia currently holds only about 16 Australians on charges of terrorism, yet the authorities are pursuing extremism issues with the long interests of the country in view. That is why a lot of Australia’s overseas security cooperation, with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan in particular, focuses on youth de-radicalization, rehabilitation of prisoners as well as improvement in the jail infrastructures.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk