They say a day is a long time in politics. And it seems 18 months is a long time in religion. It was hardly 18 months ago that a young Sydney sheik made remarks linking dress to sexual violence against women.
The sheik alleged that women who dressed a certain way were “eligible for rape”. He then made matters worse by alleging his remarks were only meant for Muslim women who refuse to wear the hijab.
In effect, he was condemning the vast majority of Muslim women who only choose to cover themselves with an umbrella during times of rain. The fact is only a small but growing minority of Muslim women in Australia choose to cover their heads in public.
After plenty of pressure, the young imam was forced to retract and apologise for his comments. Muslims thought they had seen the end of such misguided and misogynistic religiosity.
Now, one of Australia’s most senior imams seems to have repeated the same slur. Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, whose title includes Mufti of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific (even if many across the Tasman and the Pacific have never heard of him), is reported by The Australian newspaper to have said that women are “meat” which should not be left uncovered.
To make matters worse, the Sheik’s representative and translator has claimed that the Sheik only referred to prostitutes. As if sex workers are not entitled to the same rights as any other members of the community.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and New South Wales State Liberal Candidate for Goulburn Pru Goward has called for Sheik Hilali’s deportation. It’s too late for that - the Sheik has been a citizen for over a decade. However, it isn’t too late to call for the Sheik’s removal.
Yet it seems only the body which appointed him - the peak Muslim body known as the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) - can remove him. And AFIC is currently being managed by an administrator appointed by the courts.
The latest Hilali gaffe illustrates the widespread misogyny that exists among Muslim religious leaders. AFIC itself has tended to be a female-free zone. Up until its most recent (and disputed) election, AFIC had not had a female executive member for about two decades.
It isn’t much better in smaller grassroots organisations either. Few mosque committees and state Islamic councils have any female representation. Some mosque organisations do not even allow full membership to females.
Indeed, many ethnically-based mosques across Sydney and Melbourne bar women from attending or make life most uncomfortable for them. This was confirmed at the recent National Conference of Muslim Women held in Canberra in early September.
Speakers at the conference, including Melbourne researcher Rachel Woodlock and Sydney legal academic Jamila Hussein, told of their discussions with imams and mosque officials about women’s access to mosques. Other delegates mentioned their own experiences trying to gain access to mosques.
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