• Muslim women out together. (Getty Images )
The Sydney cafe attack is the perfect example of how minority women cop multiple and magnified forms of violence in Australia today.
By
Sarah Malik

22 Nov 2019 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 23 Nov 2019 - 9:42 AM

A woman is sitting with her friend in a western Sydney cafe. A man walks over their table and aggressively hunches over the two women. The women are still, as if bracing themselves. 

He allegedly shouts racist vitriol at her before lurching forward and furiously punching the woman until she keels over. Thankfully, cafe bystanders step in as he begins to stomp on the woman's head which forced her to the ground. Her friend grabs a chair and smashes the man over the head.

The woman in question is 31-year-old Rana Elasmar, a hijabi woman who is 38 weeks pregnant. 

  

For me, as a Muslim woman with friends and family who wear the hijab, and who has also worn it myself, watching this footage made me feel sick and angry and anxious.

Violent racist public attacks are often dismissed as the acts of lone wolf outliers, but they are only the extension of the Islamophobia that pervades our whole culture. The pummelling is not always physical - it's emotional.  It's being the subject of looks, stares, projections and constant scrutiny. It's fear and second-guessing in unfamiliar environments. It's living with a deep gash in your self-esteem, treading on eggshells and the low-level anxiety that follows you everywhere, knowing the public space is a fraught one. 

It's the fear that you can be attacked, yelled at and treated with rudeness and disdain at any time, in covert ways that leave you shaken. It's the stinted politeness of the no to the job in an interview by the "Cathy's" of the world.  It's knowing at your core what this is fuelled by, but this harm being minimised by those around you as in your imagination. 

But it's not in our imagination. Earlier this week the Islamophobia Register released a report revealing the gendered nature of racism against Muslim communities.

The report found 72 per cent of those targeted by Islamophobic attacks in public were women. The perpetrators? 73 per cent male. Most of these attacks happened in shopping centres, in well-guarded areas with surveillance. Ninety-two per cent were targeted when they were alone. 

We know that perpetrators, usually male, do what they can get away with, and enact the greatest violence against those who have less power, who they imagine no-one will care about. Women from highly discriminated-against racial minority groups are at the very top of that list. This is how women in racialised minority communities cop multiple and magnified forms of violence in Australia today.  

My WhatsApp groups are filled with these stories. We share strategies of self-care to deal with white society, commiserations over the latest "Cathy" incident, form women's self-defence classes, devise group outings and discuss the merits of putting on or taking off hijab in different contexts. 

This is what it means to be a Muslim woman navigating life in Australia today. Forget the glass ceiling - just try being a woman trying to buy groceries without being attacked or abused at the shops. This has a chilling reverberation beyond practicing Muslim women - it affects secular friends and family, all of us. It’s a violence that leaves so many impacted with heads bowed - male partners humiliated, their children ashamed. One hijabi academic friend told me after being shouted at that she was a terrorist while standing at the ATM in Bondi, her little girl asked her, "Mummy why did that lady say you kill people? You're a good person". She broke down in tears and couldn't stop.

This is the double violence that leaves us second-guessing and stressed -  about our mothers, aunties and best friends. It's not just travelling at night by ourselves that we're worried about. It's being targeted in broad daylight in front of cameras, and knowing even this is not going to protect you.

How can a community experiencing this ever feel safe? Imagine being a woman and not being able to even go out to a coffee with your mate for a brief reprieve.

In this case, CCTV footage recorded this vicious attack, bystanders stepped in and the man has been charged. But many victims of Islamophobia are not so 'lucky', if you could call it that.

They absorb the violence, violence that goes unreported and unpunished, as it happens every day in Australia. 

Sarah Malik is a Walkley-award winning investigative journalist and deputy editor of SBS Voices. She is also a public speaker on racism, gender and representation, and a graduate of the 2019 Our Watch Walkley fellowship examining best-practice reporting on domestic violence in Australia. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahbmalik. 

For more information on violence against women, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au In an emergency call 000.

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