Weaving traditions to get Muslim and non-Muslim women talking

CULTURES UNITE: Dr Zuleyha Keskin, Jenny Dowel, Rashida Joseph and Lavender come together on Mariam's Day in Lismore.
CULTURES UNITE: Dr Zuleyha Keskin, Jenny Dowel, Rashida Joseph and Lavender come together on Mariam's Day in Lismore. RJ Poole

THE women of Lismore came together last week to embrace their Muslim sisters at a special afternoon called Mariam's Day.

The event "Muslim and non-Muslim women talking weaving traditions and lives together” was a response to the Islamophobia in the city.

It provided an opportunity to share experiences to foster greater understanding between cultures in our community.

More than 100 women took part in the event at St Andrew's Anglican Church hall. They listened to a panel of prominent women discuss both the "differences and commonalities” that existed between them.

MC for the day Jeanti St Claire told the audience "Mariam” was the name for "Mary” in the Koran, a figure who has come to represent the connection between women in every religion.

Former mayor Jenny Dowell told the hall she had been "ashamed” to discover the Muslim community in Lismore had to meet in a secret location due to rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the city. She cited a situation that saw a baby hit in the head with a raw egg by a passing car.

Panelist and Lismore resident Rashida Joseph converted to Islam in 1981. At the time of the US World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, she wore the hijab and recalled having her head split open by a man when getting cash out of an ATM.

Ms Joseph said these actions came from ignorance. It was important people were given the opportunity to talk about cultural differences and "learn how we can live with that”.

High-profile feminist community activist Lavender said, "We have to be prepared to ask and answer each other's questions.”

Lavender said this may lead to feelings of discomfort but that was "a wonderful thing as it was a springboard to change”.

Guest speaker Dr Zuleyha Keskin, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Charles Sturt University, said she had felt strange when she first arrived in Lismore wearing a hijab.

"It's very different to being in Sydney or Melbourne where it's more multicultural,” she said.

She said she hoped to dispel myths about Muslim women.

"Wearing a hijab is not oppressive, it's empowering because it's something I've decided to do for my religion,” she said.

"It's about moving away from a physical focus to the spiritual, the internal and the character.”

Ms Dowell spoke of how dress represented a sense of belonging that was to be respected. She told of a trip to Sydney when she found herself among a "surge of darkly clad and very conservatively suited male and female office workers” coming towards her.

"I felt like a pumpkin in my orange dress. It really reinforced that I was from a much more colourful place,” she said.

Each of the panellists spoke of the importance of non-judgment and empathy, as well as their hope for Lismore due to events such as Mariam's Day.

Topics:  islam islamophobia jenny dowell lismore muslim community

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