Organisation: The Muslim Women’s Welfare Association of ACT
Contact: Kerri Hashmi
Tel: (02) 6292 7344
Description of Initiative
The first Women’s Dinner was held on a Saturday night in June this year (2007) at the Canberra Islamic Centre in Canberra City. The organisers propose to hold several more of these dinners this year and beyond. The dinners are for women only and seek to bring Muslim and non-Muslim-Australian women living in Canberra together for socialisation and friendship. It is an open and unstructured forum in which participants are encouraged to exchange ideas and develop friendship to make Canberra, in whatever small ways, socially and culturally a more inclusive community.
Muslim-Australian women and some non-Muslim-Australian women who earlier expressed to the organisers their interest in meeting Muslim-Australian women were the invited guests. The Muslim-Australian women were also expected to bring along a non- Muslim friend, in-law, neighbour, or colleague. The Muslim-Australian women did all the cooking at their homes and brought a dish each to the forum to share. The number of guests was expected to be around 50 women, however, on the dinner night around 100 women turned up.
The dinners are kept deliberately informal and unstructured to maximise opportunities for the participants to get to know one another.
Hibah: We deliberately didn’t set any structure because I think what women often want is just the opportunity to talk to each other and get to know each other
The motivation for the Women’s Dinner was to provide an opportunity to thank the women from the non-Muslim-Australian community who had been, as the Coordinator put it, ‘kind to us or shown an interest in befriending us over the past few years’, particularly following the events of September 11 and the Bali bombings when the community came under much closer scrutiny and experienced increased levels of racism and discrimination. The Muslim-Australian women of Canberra appreciated the goodwill shown to them during this period. The dinner was to thank these women but beyond this it was also intended as an opportunity to forge better relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim-Australian women and in turn to inform the larger community about Islam and Muslims.
Hibah: Over the past three years the Muslim community has had some contact with the non-Muslim community. We’ve had a lot of women approach us and ask about Islam and seek some sort of friendship and co-operation with us and given that it has been sort of difficult times for Muslims we really appreciated that, so we decided last year tohave a thank-you party for them and invite them and we decided to make it very simple.
… Muslim women because of the question of Halal food, Muslim women would cater. We’d bring a dish, we would each just cook a dish, bring a dish and invite the ladies, the non-Muslim ladies who had been friends to us, plus everyone, if they can, to bring another friend, to bring a non Muslim, either a neighbour or work colleague or an in-law or someone who would like to get to know the Muslim community better. So it was to bring a dish and bring a friend and we held it at the Canberra Islamic Centre, they kindly let us have their hall and just. … that was really all the arrangement …. So that women could just sit and talk and get to know each other and that was the plan of it and it was very successful, people were very happy about it and we do – we’re planning to do it again.
By the end of the evening, women from both backgrounds were quite familiar with each other, had exchanged telephone numbers, addresses, email addresses, and recipes. The women had ‘networked’ to help each other, planned to invite more friends in the next forum, and broaden their horizons and circle of friends.
Once again, the participants had an overwhelmingly positive view of this initiative, with very few negative issues raised. The non-Muslim-Australian participants valued the opportunity to get to know Muslim-Australian women in a relaxed environment.
Cathy: I heard Hibah say at some stage somewhere … take it all for granted. She mixes a lot with non-Muslim people as well as Muslim women and non-Muslim women and I do through too my job so for me it’s part of the natural thing but my girlfriend came with me that night and she thought it was fascinating because she’d never done anything like that before and she found it a really interesting experience to mix with Muslim women. … but a lot of Australian people don’t have a lot to do with Muslims and I think for women, you know Australian women like that who don’t have a lot to do with Muslims, to meet a group of Muslims is really an educating … it’s an opening experience for them, we’re all on a path of learning I think and I think that learning about each other, learning about ourselves and I think the opportunity to mix with people who are different for you it’s just great.
It was pointed out that the Muslim-Australian women in Canberra were predominantly middle class and well educated and tended to have many professional opportunities through work and university to mix with non-Muslims. However the value of the dinners lay in providing non-Muslim-Australian women an opportunity to mix with Muslim- Australians as this group had far fewer opportunities to do so.
Hibah: I think in Canberra though we find that the Muslim community is well-educated and the Muslim women on the whole tend to be working or studying and mixing a lot with non-Muslims but the non-Muslims who of course are … greater majority don’t necessarily have the opportunity to meet Muslims so whilst we are a bit blasé about mixing with non-Muslims they are not … so they need an opportunity … to meet us.
However, more generally it was an opportunity for both Muslim and non-Muslim- Australian women to build new relationships and in some cases renew the old ones and learn about cultural traditions and values of other members of the larger Canberra community.
Cathy: Well really it was just meeting. It was food. It was belly dancing. … that was wonderful. I didn’t attempt to get up there but you know activity and exercise and trying something new, and having a bit of a giggle. I think you know all these things breaks down barriers like in sport and … dancing breaks down barriers, it’s one way of getting women up there to share activities together. Women network beautifully I think. Women do rapport talk rather than report talk. So when you establish rapport between women in shared activities like dancing where we all feel stupid equally, you know at the time I think it’s a good way to bring everyone down to the same common level where we’re all just females having a good time so that for me was good.
The fact that the Muslim-Australian women provide home cooked food for the event was raised as a positive example of a ‘thankyou’.
Megan: all the Muslim women I think only - where the ones who provided food which I think which was fabulous ‘cause like elaborating on what Cathy said, food’s always a good way to get groups of people together. Um, and yeah so that sort of added to the thank you aspect of it that they provided the food and we just had to turn up and socialise.
Food was also a good conversation point and provided much opportunity for discussion and exchange.
Hibah: [We discussed] food I guess basically. I know a lot of people left with recipes but because it was a bring-your-own dish thing, a lot of people sought out recipes for how to cook things and otherwise, yes, conversations about kids and er-
The conversations tended to be more around things the women had in common, rather than religious differences as such. Once again, discussions around work, family and parenting were important in helping the women bond.
Megan: It was really was just a bunch of women it wasn’t particularly for me a Muslim event and most the conversations that I had were just the type of conversations I’d have with any female. It wasn’t um, any particular reaching out or sharing it was just yeah finding the commonalities and … yeah and eating and doing you know just having conversations. Talking about family. Talking about all sorts of issues, swimming, English, learning English all that sort of things that I’m interested in.
Akilah: The conversations tended to be more around things the women had in common, rather than religious differences as such. Once again, discussions around work, family and parenting were important in helping the women bond.
The informal and unstructured format of the dinners was mentioned as one of its key strengths, allowing much greater opportunity for free flowing conversation of the ‘getting to know you’ type. The success of this unstructured format is perhaps evidenced by the fact that many women exchanged phone numbers at the end of the night in the hope of having ongoing friendship and contact.
Hibahe: I actually have a lot of non-Muslim women say to me that they don’t have an opportunity to meet Muslim women. And so to just sit and talk and meet people at an ordinary level, I find I’ve been to some formal sort of interfaith discussions and I think nobody’s really interested in them actually. They don’t take off but just to sit and chat to people was a good opportunity. …
One interesting outcome of the dinner was that a Canberra based journalist who had previously written an article which the Muslim-Australian women in the study felt was somewhat prejudiced was invited to participate. To her credit, the journalist attended and there was a feeling among the women that this might have helped change some of her attitudes and that this might have a flow on effect in terms of media coverage.
Hibah: We’re working on an attitude …We had a lunch and she wrote an article a piece in the paper that was full of the Muslim stereotypes and really disappointing. It was around this time last year when the Sheik Halali discussion was on and so we actually got in contact with her and said come and have lunch with us and about eight of us I think met her at this restaurant and had lunch with her and just talked to her. She asked us a lot of questions and things and she’s kept in contact with some of the people and we invited her to that dinner as well and she turned up and sat and chatted to people. I think there may have been an attitudinal change, she certainly got her mind open um which is really good um, and she certainly hasn’t written anything quite as negative for a while.
The women involved were predominantly middle-class, well educated, and fairly comfortable with difference. Many were professionals and mixed with diverse Australians in the workplace. Those we interviewed included ESL teachers and Canberra public servants, one of whom worked for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. They acknowledged that on their part, there was not much attitudinal change in that they were fairly open to cultural difference to begin with.
Megan: oh for me it hasn’t changed. That’s what I -.. I loved the evening, it was a great idea but it was like preaching to the converted.
Therefore a key challenge for such events (which are indeed very positive) is to engage a broader cross-section of participants, particularly those with little exposure to cultural and religious diversity.
However one important aspect of the dinner was that each woman was asked to bring along a friend, family member or colleague, and some of these were first time participants in such an activity and it was among this group that attitudinal change was witnessed.
Hibah: I think as we have discussed earlier most of it was preaching to the converted, but I think there were a couple of attitudinal changes amongst some women who had very little contact with Muslims who had come along as sort of a friend-of-a – friend and they expressed at the end how much they’d really enjoyed it and enjoyed talking to people, so I think there was a small amount of attitudinal change and I guess we’ve just got to build on it….I don’t think it’s anything that can be forced um and look I don’t think preaching to the converted is necessarily a bad idea because the converted go and preach to the unconverted and so the net widens
As an unstructured and open forum, the Women’s Dinner was a successful experience for both the organisers as well as the participants. However, it posed one key challenge according to Hibah, the Coordinator:
Hibah: I think the main thing is that timing was the hardest and the other thing is that from my experience most Muslims don’t RSVP so you never actually know who is turning up and as the organiser we had, I knew a lot of non-Muslim women were coming, they said they were coming and I really didn’t know until the last minute how many Muslims were going to turn up and whether we were going to have enough food and that’s the hardest … always the hardest thing, you never know who us going to show.
This is an important issue because the venue and catering play important roles in making participants comfortable. People appreciate a comfortable venue and appropriate catering in order to participate in conversation and the socialising process. If a venue is inappropriate in terms of distance and size, participants could be dissuaded from attending a function.
A second issue was raised about the sustainability of such events in that there was a feeling that the Muslim-Australian community in Canberra was ‘spread a bit thin’ and that this might threaten the sustainability of the program.
Cathy: We are. Yeah the only thing that I feel is that the Muslim community in Canberra gets spread pretty thin and the same ones of us keep meeting over and over again.. sort of.. everybody else. You know and there’s not enough of us to go round and what worries me if it’s spread too widely the invitations is we end up with 200 non- Muslims and 3 Muslims.. [laughter]
Participants indicated quite clearly that a lot of non-Muslim-Australian women do not get the opportunity to meet Muslim-Australian women. This initiative caters for that gap in ‘community service’.
As an unstructured open forum in which participants feel comfortable and relaxed, the Women’s Dinner is a good grass-roots initiative that brings together women from different socio-economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds.
In terms of broader impact, the initiative acts a conduit, using female participants to inform the Canberra community about Muslim-Australian people and dispel negative stereotypes about Muslim-Australians and Islam.