Organisations: Islamic Women’s Association of Queensland
Brisbane City Council & Coles Supermarkets
Contact: Safia Raza
Phone: (07) 3272-6355 Fax: (07) 3272 6155
Mobile: 0434 214 751
Funding: Brisbane City Council
Description of Initiative
Funded and organised by the Brisbane City Council through the Islamic Women’s
Association of Queensland (IWAQ), this initiative involved a series of morning teas at a local Coles Supermarket. Participants were Muslim-Australian women involved with IWAQ, and employees of the Coles Supermarkets. The initiative was selected for this study because it was the only one identified as involving a workplace, and one of only two initiatives involving non-Muslim-Australian participants from a working class background who are not typically involved in ‘harmony’ type programs.
The impetus for the initiative came from discussions within IWAQ who wanted to explore more possibilities for dialogue with non-Muslim-Australians. Shopping centres and supermarkets were identified as a context where many Muslim-Australian women felt discriminated against, particularly by shop assistants.
Aisha: [before the Morning Tea initiative] I always go to that Coles because it’s just down the road, and I always go in the express lane because I only buy you know, small things when I go to that Coles, and um, you just notice the way the Cashier lady she’s very kind and bubbly to everyone before you,.. when she reaches she doesn’t even acknowledge, or say hi to you. And she will just scan the products. And I just say thank you, I would even say hi how are you but she wouldn’t respond. It’s just – the difference between the way she treats the people in front of me until it reaches my turn, and then I stay back, ‘cause I’m quite curious to see how she reacts to other people after me and it’s completely different.
IWAQ contacted the manager of the local Coles Supermarket to propose the idea of the morning tea, and received an enthusiastic response. The morning teas were held on Coles premises, in the lunch room. Coles staff on morning tea break were encouraged to attend the morning tea, which was based around an informal guided dialogue format. Coles Supermarket provided the food.
While we were able to conduct a focus group with the Muslim-Australian participants of this initiative, the focus group with the Coles employees was cancelled at the last minute by their manager due to staffing issues. Due to the immanent completion of this research project, we were not able to find a convenient time to re-schedule. Therefore the analysis of this particular initiative is based on the perceptions of the Muslim-Australian participants only.
Although based on only a very small sample of 4 Muslim-Australian interviewees, the initiative appears to have been very successful in meeting its aims. Participants felt that the encounters helped the Coles staff understand the experiences of Muslim-Australians and why they feel uncomfortable shopping at times.
SR: We gathered from them [the Coles employees] that… they learned a lot that day. They learned a lot that day didn’t they? (Yeah) and they were so happy that they were – to meet with us to understand how we feel when we go shopping, you know? We feel vulnerable when we go shopping because they’re already behind the counter, they just go off and they understood how it feels – and the service managers said if you ever have any problem, or any Muslim has any problem to go and see her.
An important aspect of the initiative was that it provided an opportunity to the Coles employees - who were mostly of Anglo-Celtic, working class background - to ask sensitive questions about Muslim-Australians in a safe and trusting environment. Sometimes these questions were based on ill informed assumptions, but were received generously, and the myths they were based on were able to be dispelled.
Stephanie: I think it [Coles] was a good choice as well because they were giving – they were asking us questions about, you know about these fundamentalists that were wearing black scarves, and all.. [where you can only] see the eyes and we could give them the answer perhaps it’s because of this. You know we knew what – we know why they wear that form dress, and so they get an understanding from someone that’s in the middle ground instead of them maybe asking them directly which they might have never had the opportunity to do. So, I think it’s – it was good for us for them to, to even though we seem all bright and bubbly, but for them to really, they wanted to know about those fundamentalists …
SR [they asked about]..like bombs.... things like that … these were some of the things [that one of the male Coles employees] came out with. It was good it was very healthy because he, he felt easy enough to discuss it with us and, you do, he didn’t keep it in, you know?
The participants seemed to enjoy the relatively informal arrangement, with only a very loose guided discussion as a back up. This seemed to help in producing a more convivial atmosphere.
Unidentified female: Yeah I thought it was um easy to talk about because it was so informal. It was just a morning tea, the only thing I didn’t like about it was because I – we didn’t eat much, we were talking too much[laugh] no I mean it was morning tea and there was all this wasted food and if we had more time perhaps.
The Muslim-Australian women were pleased that the attendance on the Coles side was strong and that their participation was voluntary. They felt that this demonstrated a real interest and commitment to the process.
Aisha: None of them were forced to go there. They could walk in and out as they did but most of them stayed.. Most of them stayed and most of them came and joined in.
The participation of the Coles employees appears to have produced demonstrable changes in behaviour and attitude, such that the Muslim-Australian women feel welcomed when they shop at that supermarket now.
Unidentified female: Yeah they [the Coles people] think we’re normal people [now]. Aisha: Enough to even see us now when [before] they didn’t even smile [or] say hi when you [went] into Coles.
Unidentified female: We get special treatment now.. [laugh] Aisha: We do at Coles…
Unidentified female: Yeah and then they asked you what food that you wanted stocked… Yeah we want the dates and everything. Special.
There appeared to be very few challenges in this initiative. The only reported moment of discomfort surrounded some misunderstandings around alcohol. These seemed to have been handled well, however the Muslim-Australian participants were slightly surprised at the Anglo participants ignorance of these issues, but were able to explain these rules.
Unidentified female: it was really about exploring wasn’t it – exploring what it means to be Muslim, what it’s all about how did it feel. And when the fellow said well if you people would come along to the pubs, the RSLs is that what he said. If you can come along and socialise where we socialise have you ever thought of doing that? No. something.... it’s something that hadn’t ever occurred to you. Well actually we don’t drink alcohol. You don’t drink..?..? [laughter]
Organisational and Sustainability Issues
There was some reflection on the organisation of the initiative and thoughts about how it might be improved. The participants felt that perhaps the gatherings might be better held at a different time of day as there was mixed attendance on the part of the Coles staff. It was also felt that a larger meeting space may have provided more opportunity to change places and talk with others in the group.
Aisha: make it perhaps in a time that they weren’t always working because there were people coming in and out and maybe they’d missed some parts at the start, at the end (OK) somewhere we could really, a location where – I’m not- it was small and cosy but somewhere we could maybe move around next time, like talk to some people here or they come move around, us, or we move around to different groups.
Although Coles’ provision of the food for the morning teas was very much appreciated, a further suggestion was made by the Muslim-Australian participants that they bring the food next time, in order to provide an opportunity to discuss issues around Halal food and to share the different cuisines of the group.
Hazar OK I could make a recommendation next time because we didn’t have a much um – if I had known earlier I could have prepared something (yes) we… you know, meal or something, and then they could see what we eat and that sort of thing. So if we could do maybe a… like a lunch.. cooking thing
Aisha Next time we [could] go through the different [types of food] because I think well for Coles a big thing for them is what is halal…
This was a very positive initiative overall, at least in the judgement of the Muslim- Australian participants.
It is an important example of a workplace based intervention.
The initiative accessed people who would never normally be involved in ‘harmony’ type activities as it was built into their working day. Indeed, it likely provided a bit of social, light relief to an otherwise uneventful working day.
The initiative resulted in a more welcoming shopping experience for the Muslim- Australian women.
And provided a safe opportunity for the Coles employees to ask questions about Islam and Muslim-Australians in Australia.