Organisations: Al Zahra Muslim Women’s Association Smith Family through its VIEW (Voice Interest and Education of Women Program)
Contact: Ibtisam Hammoud 9-11 Wollongong Road ARNCLIFFE, NSW 2205
Tel: (02) 9599 1839
Funding: Funded by the Smith Family through its VIEW (Voice Interest and Education of Women) Program.
Description of Initiative
Women Helping Women is a project that seeks to create an intimate relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim women in the Arncliffe area based on English language learning classes. The ‘students’ of these classes are essentially married Muslim-Australian migrant women and their teachers are primarily Anglo-Australian-born retired or semi-retired women teachers who are volunteers with the Smith Family’s VIEW club. Most of these volunteers are from the Maroubra, St George and Sutherland Shire region and participated as a response to the Cronulla riots.
Marianne: I don’t know if you know much about the VIEW membership but it was about 23,000 women who were mostly of Anglo-Celtic backgrounds who had very little non- English speaking background membership so it was a very white, Caucasian organisation and the women actually came from the Sutherland Shire area so it was a way to actually increase their interaction with people, with women specifically who were Muslim.
Once a week on Thursday, the women meet for an English language class. During the class, women students learn basic English skills so that they can communicate in English rather than just in their mother tongue. However an important feature is the emphasis on friendships, building bridges across difference, and social interaction.
The objectives of this project are twofold:
To help Muslim migrant women achieve proficiency in their written and spoken English language so that they can better communicate with different structures of society and improve their chances of employability.
Through improved English language skills, to empower these women and enable them to better communicate with non-Muslim-Australian women, inform them about their culture and religion, dispel myths about Islam, and build relationships between the two groups.
The project anticipates that Muslim-Australian women will come out of the program with at least functional English language and that the teachers will be able to improve their understanding about Muslim culture and faith. This will impact positively on relation building between the two groups of women and consequently its effect is hoped to have reverberations in the larger community.
The success of the project is manifested in the fact that both Muslim-Australian women as students and Anglo-Celtic Australian women as teachers were able not only to achieve the set objectives of the project but to transcend these by developing a good relationship between themselves. It created a venue as well as the opportunity to learn about each other at a more personal level and about cultural values and norms. Mostly the social interaction occurred around discussions of an everyday nature.
About my family, my kids, my husband’s work, and I talk with her about her husband, her family, and how they do things in the day, about their cooking, the way they cook….
Certainly it created among the Anglo-Celtic women volunteers a sense of empathy with the experiences of racism among Muslim-Australian women.
Marianne: I think for me [Cronulla] didn’t change so much my opinion of the muslim culture, I should think it probably changed my – probably highlighted to me racism in Australia. (JA: okay, okay). I don’t think that I realised that the social relations between Muslims and Non-Muslims had gotten as bad, or had – was as bad, I don’t know whether gotten, I don’t think I realised that it was such a fiery topic and so if anything it probably changed my perception from the non-Muslim Australia more than it did for Muslim Australia.
The relaxed environment of the classroom where social interaction was encouraged provided a lightly structured means through which relationships could be built. Overall the atmosphere was reported as light hearted and positive and all participants seemed to gain a great deal of pleasure from the encounters.
But I guess the relationships that developed, you know like some of the women were just such a hoot you know, they were such fun and you know really good entertainment … fairly confident saying that their social skills and their level of comfort in coming to a place and working with other women and different women, was probably a positive one.
The Anglo-Australian volunteer women felt good about their contribution in that they felt they had skills to offer the Muslim-Australian women.
Well I didn’t have any negative experiences at all. I felt as though I was able to make a contribution to people who were disadvantaged. I feel as though I was providing some purpose and some meaning for … didn’t matter who they were but certainly the women were disadvantaged and I personally found that quite fulfilling and satisfying … I thought that I was actually in a position to be able to help them whether it was to improve their skills or whether it was to make them feel more confident, whether it was to open up an avenue for them to meet other people I thought that to me that was doing something so that I could help people who were in perhaps a less privileged position than I am.
The volunteers spoke of their involvement as ‘life changing’ and felt that the experience had enlightened them in many ways about what it means to live as Muslim-Australian today. There was a definite ‘de-centering’ of previously ethnocentric views, even where the women reported their views as being fairly open to begin with.
Michelle: … it was a profoundly positive experience and probably one of the most personal rewarding projects I’ve been involved in. … I think that would be because I understood a lot more about Muslims as a result of my involvement in that project and as I said it probably challenged some of the ideas that I’d had about how Muslims behaved or were or the gender stereotyping that I had come away … it was a real life- changing experience, and I don’t think I was a particularly racist person before I got involved in the project and yet it profoundly changed how I viewed …. I’ve not changed but just meant that I actually had an opinion about Muslims, in general whereas maybe I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to it before. So probably opened my eyes that they were quite discriminated against as you know, as a group of people. It made me realise the similarities more than the differences and again I’m not someone who sees a lot of difference so I actually found that … I found that a really positive experience. … so that was really good. But yeah it was about the similarities. It highlighted the similarities to me and it made me respect differences. … I don’t know that I came in with a lot of, a lot of preconceived notions except about gender stereo- mainly gender stereotyping but for me it was just a general, increased understanding about what it was to be a Muslim, and in particular a Muslim in Australia.
Both Muslim and non-Muslim women were appreciative of the way the project enabled them to achieve learning goals and exchange ideas and values that helped build new relationship between them.
And maybe give them just the confidence to try. So whether or not the project itself … dramatically increased people’s skills … but it’s more about the confidence and the level of self-esteem yeah to actually just give it a go.
The Muslim-Australian women felt a sense of satisfaction in helping to change attitudes towards Muslims through contact with the teachers, and indirectly, having an impact upon the attitudes of the teachers friends.
Everyone’s open together, and we talk about what’s happened, why they say bad things about Muslims. She says, ‘I know.’ She knows some people who ask her, ‘Why are you talking to Muslims? Why do you have a relationship with them? It’s not good. They’re no good.’ She says, ‘No, I know them very well. They are very friendly and very good. It’s not like what you think about them.
The Muslim-Australian participants felt that they learnt a lot from the program, both in terms of their English skills, and their knowledge of Australian society more generally.
I like this Women Helping Women because I learn and I am speaking, … talking with the teacher.
Well, we learn English and we meet new friends and...I know now, I know English better than before because she improved our English.
They spoke of the environment as like a ‘second home’. This is an important achievement as this was one of the few places outside their own homes that these women were able to come.
… we always come here. We like to come here. It’s like our home. We meet here always because we don’t know anywhere else to go. Only here and home.
The Muslim-Australian women found it offered an important support network, not just with the non-Muslim women, but among the Muslim-Australian women themselves.
… there were some Muslim women who came who then connected with other Muslim women that they may have not have connected with otherwise. Women who had fairly hefty family responsibilities and who were in their own way protected and sort of cocooned within the family so to speak … in turn made some sort of social connection with other women.
For the most part the Muslim-Australian women had extremely very positive views of their Anglo-Australian teachers and found value in learning from one another.
We’re very happy in this English course. We had a very nice teacher, very friendly, and she liked us and we liked her very much. She was a friendly woman. She asked us about our lives and our cooking, everything. And we asked her the same. We communicated together like friends, not teacher and students.
Like any initiative, this one has some challenges to overcome. A key challenge in terms of really changing hearts and minds where it counts is for the Smith Family VIEW club to be able to recruit a wider cross-section of Anglo-Celtic Australian women, particularly those from lower middle and working class backgrounds. The participants, as former teachers, were overwhelmingly middle class and had fairly open views about Islam and multliculturalism to begin with. Although there was some shift in views, the attitudinal change was less marked than if the volunteer group was had a more broadly representative base.
Should the organisation seek out a broader volunteer base, this will need to be carefully managed and mediated. The only negative report on this study related to one such teacher who had her own prejudices about Islam and was not particularly open to having these challenged. The Muslim-Australian women in the end asked that they be allocated a different teacher.
Hannah: Another teacher, we left her! (Laughs) She was alone, sitting like that, and no- one with her! and she didn’t come back. I don’t know. If you’re not comfortable with a teacher, you can’t learn anything…..She doesn’t know about Islam. That’s why she didn’t give us space to extend to her what we are like [she didn’t allow us to show her who we really are], because she was always fighting with us. …She came like she was big and we are small. We can’t explain to her... she learnt something, but she wasn’t very comfortable, I don’t know...
Despite the discomfort of this teacher, the Muslim-Australian women still felt that by the end of her tenure there was some attitudinal change in the teacher.
at the end of it, the teacher actually acknowledged to the girls that she had learnt something about Islam, and she had just made up her mind about what she’d read, so she had informed ideas about Muslims from what she’d read and heard in the media, but in the end she acknowledged that she’d learnt something dealing with the girls. She’d actually learnt something.
The initiative also has some clear power differentials as the Anglo-Celtic women were very much involved from a perspective of ‘helping the disadvantaged’. This in itself is not a bad thing, but needs to be managed as other research has shown that these types of programs (Lang, Kamalkhani & Baldassar 2007) can sometimes infantilise those on the receiving end of such assistance, and also produce a slight ‘fatigue’ among the recipients being overly assisted by well meaning volunteers which can be somewhat disempowering. Neither of these issues seemed to be manifest in this case study, however it is something that the organisers will need to remain attuned to.
Organisational and Sustainability Issues
The program seemed to be well organised, however funding issues were mentioned as one challenge to sustaining the activity.
To keep in operation the project faces:
Funding issues (as it relies entirely on Smith Family funding)
Recruiting a broader base of volunteers.
The initiative was overwhelmingly a positive one and enjoyed by participants on both sides.
Volunteer tutors reported a greater understanding of Muslim-Australians and that assumptions and myths about Islam were challenged.
Bonding took place around similarities rather than differences.
The volunteers were mainly from fairly educated middle-class backgrounds and therefore some effort may need to be put into recruiting a broader base of volunteers in order to achieve real attitudinal change.
Should volunteers be recruited without a great deal of previous exposure to cultural diversity, the organiser will need to pay careful attention to mediating and preparing the volunteer teacher so that the classroom relationship remains positive.