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.
As recent debates concerning dress code in the UK have shown, misguided views on women’s dress aren’t limited to imams. It seems these days a woman’s right to wear what she wishes is subject to constant comment and politicisation by attention-seeking (and usually male) politicians and leaders.
Muslim women are frequently the most visible members of their communities. They are also the ones caught between the misogyny of imams and the prejudice of allegedly conservative commentators and scribes determined to remove any form of clothing from their heads.
At the same time, the Hilali incident illustrates how difficult it is for Muslim communities to represent themselves. Muslims are not a cultural or religious monolith in Australia. They come from over 60 different countries, and many Muslim families have lived in Australia since the mid 19th century.
I recently met a Muslim from Moreeba who told me her father had migrated from Albania in the 1920’s. Established Muslim communities can be found in all urban and regional areas of Australia.
Muslims also don’t have a central priestly hierarchy. The position of Mufti is not akin to that of Archbishop or Cardinal. Muslims have neither a Pope nor a Church. The Mufti is merely someone who act like a Senior Counsel - an expert on religious law who can give expert but non-binding advice in the form of a fatwa. Contrary to what some tabloid writers might say, a fatwa is not a death sentence nor is it a binding ruling.
Sheik Hilali’s comments were apparently part of an address to 500 people at his mosque. They were not part of a formal fatwa. Yet fatwa or not, his comments would represent heterodoxy of the highest order.
There is a well-known story narrated by the Prophet Mohammed of a sex worker who returned from her shift. She went to her town well and was drawing water when she saw a dog nearby dying of thirst. She provided water to the dog before drinking herself. God showed mercy to her and ordered the angels to write her name on the list of those entering paradise.
In Sheik Hilali’s own mosque in Lakemba, I heard a visiting American imam three years ago relate this story. Sheik Nuh Keller told his audience: “I wish I could be like that prostitute and earn God’s mercy.”
Sheik Hilali will have known of this incident, which illustrates the mercy of God towards all God’s creatures, including those whom society chooses to stigmatise. While God offers mercy to a prostitute, men claiming to represent God use words that reinforce the stigma and justify sexual violence.
This year, at least five Muslim men will join a host of other prominent Australian men as ambassadors for White Ribbon Day. WRD is an initiative of UNIFEM, the United Nations agency for women, and is a day to campaign for the elimination of all forms of violence against women.
Perhaps one step Sheik Hilali could take would be to impress upon his congregation the importance of heeding the White Ribbon Day message. Perhaps he could wear a white ribbon himself.
However, he must first apologise to women and men of all persuasions. His employer should also investigate the remarks and obtain legal advice on whether there are grounds to dismiss or take other disciplinary action against him. Anything less than a complete apology would be unacceptable.