Australian women wear headscarves in solidarity with Muslim community

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A group of Australian women have taken to wearing headscarves as a show of solidarity to the country's Muslim population, who they say are increasingly being targeted because of their appearance.

For one week, Kate Leaney - a Christian woman - has donned a scarf on her head in the Islamic tradition.

It's not because she's trying stay warm – rather, she’s trying to warm the hearts of others.

The refugee advocate is showing support for her many Muslim friends who she fears are increasingly being targeted because of their appearance.

"Friends who've worn the hijab for years and years... feeling scared to do that in public because that was a really visible display of their Muslim faith," she says.

"The response I have got from that has been pretty terrifying, being linked to terrorism just because I have chosen to wear a piece of fabric on my head."

Ms Leaney says it broke her heart to see her friends feeling fear in a country like Australia where she says no one should feel afraid to show their faith or go out in public.

"And so I thought about what was something practical and visible I could do to show them that I stand with them and show them that I support their rights to feel safe in Australia," she says.

It's an action that's earned her a few quizzical looks, and some hostility, such as when she walked in to a petrol station.

“Somebody asked me if I was Muslim and I said 'No, I’m not; I’m just wearing this in solidarity with my friends who do identify as Muslim,' and then her response was 'What are you doing that for? You look like them'. And her change in reaction was so assertive and aggressive, straight away."

But far more confronting, she says, has been the reaction to her social media postings.

"The most negative feedback I’ve had is online," she says, "on Twitter and Facebook and when articles have been published.

"The response I have got from that has been pretty terrifying; being linked to terrorism just because I have chosen to wear a piece of fabric on my head. But then realising that's something I’m exposed to for a week for my own choice; for other people that's their everyday lives."

Ms Leaney’s actions have inspired others to follow her lead – often citing personal reasons for participating.

Her friend Emma Thompson says she's acting out of concern for women’s rights and freedoms.

"I did feel quite nervous before going outside for the first time in my hijab, and that in a way strengthened my convictions as to why I’m doing this," she says.

"I believe that if you tell someone that they can’t wear something, that’s just as oppressive as telling someone they must wear something. 

"We’re all people, we’re all human and it doesn’t matter what we wear, what colour our skin is, what we believe in – we’re all human and we’re all equal. We should be able to live our lives with our differences."

And there are some who identify with no religion who want to show solidarity with family and friends. Megan Lamb wants to disprove negative media coverage she feels is a slight to her future in-laws.

"I’ve been quite concerned recently with the coverage of Muslim extremists, compared to the Muslim people I know," she says. "Also my fiancé’s family is Muslim and I don’t feel that what’s currently being perceived in the community is a reality in regards to the Muslim faith and the people.”

Her fiancé, Ali Jafari, was initially concerned for her safety, but supports her choice. “I was really worried about her, but after the second day, I got a bit less concerned about it," he says. "But overall, I’m really, really proud of her."

Before putting on the hijab, the women checked with Muslim friends and leaders to ensure their gesture wouldn’t be culturally or religious offensive.

Young Muslim leader Manal Younus says it’s been welcomed at every turn.

"The way that they’re wearing it, it’s not with that attitude of 'Oh I'm going to see what it’s like to be a Muslim woman for a day, and I’m going to tell the world about it'," he says. "It was simply, 'I’m just doing this as an act of solidarity. It’s not a campaign; it’s just an expression of love. but the fact that they were willing to put themselves out there and show that they supported all Muslims, not just their friends – that was really empowering for me."

"I would love to see some of our politicians who perhaps are a little bit obsessed with discussing Muslim women’s dress, for them to perhaps don a hijab and get behind this campaign."

In a little over a week individual gestures of support have morphed into a national movement, perhaps best represented through a social media site called WISH – or Women In Solidarity with Hijabis.

It was set up by Sydney-based campaigner Mariam Veiszadeh on the day that woman in hijab was assaulted and thrown from a moving train in Melbourne.  

"These incidents are not rare, we’re seeing a lot of reporting coming through with Australian Muslim women in particularly being verbally and physically abused and we need to take a stand. We need to unite together to say no to bigotry and Islamaphobia."

If support on the WISH site is any indication, at the time of writing almost 20,000 women agree with her.

Ms Veiszadeh’s hope now is for Australia’s political leaders to positively use their power and influence.

"I would love to see some of our politicians who perhaps are a little bit obsessed with discussing Muslim women’s dress, for them to perhaps don a hijab and get behind this campaign," she says.

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