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Arab-Australian oncologist Dr Roya Merie says she felt anxious about immigrating to Australia in 2010 because she wears a Hijab. Once here, she realised that her preconceptions were false.
As the debate continues over proposed religious freedom laws, prominent Arab-Australian oncologist Dr Roya Merie describes how Australia welcomed her with open arms despite her fears that society wouldn't.
On Tuesday, the Morrison government gave notice of its intention to pursue new religious discrimination laws.
It intends to make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs or activities, or lack thereof.
This would be achieved through amendments to existing marriage, charities and anti-discrimination legislation.
Dr Merie immigrated to Australia from Jordan in 2010 and while she believes that the proposed laws are "crucial to protect members of all religions", she says freedoms enjoyed in Australia are hard to find.
"What matters to me the most is that such a law will draw the line between different religious groups and make sure they don't attack each other," she says.
"The acceptance of religions and cultural diversity here is hard to find elsewhere in the world. That's why I'm not scared."
She says her impression of Australia changed significantly once she arrived.
“As a veiled Muslim woman, I felt a bit anxious before coming to Australia,” she says.
"The main difference is the fact people in Jordan are used to the Hijab as it's widely spread because the majority is Muslim. I didn't have to think about how I look like there."
In light of her own experience dealing with patients on a daily basis at Liverpool Hospital in Sydney, Dr Merie says she never feels religious discrimination and praises the freedom of speech maintained by Australian law.
“I never felt marginalised or oppressed. I won’t demand any extra protection because I’m veiled (..) I’m against this attitude,” she says.
But she did admit she sometimes feels "under the microscope".
"I have to pay attention to how I walk, drive and interact with my surrounding. Any mistake I make could enhance the stereotype already in place. Others might make the same mistake with no consequences.”
The discussion over religious freedom has arisen to the fore amid the court battle between Israel Folau and Rugby Australia after the sportsman was fired for saying on social media that gay people would go to hell.
Religious figures are pushing for a new law to protect religious freedoms and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to pass laws “later this year”.
Since her job requires a certain degree of physical contact with patients, Dr Merie says her Hijab is a perfect ice breaker to exchange cultural talks.
“Some people think I wear my Hijab while sleeping. This is totally understandable because you cannot know everything about all cultures and beliefs.”
Having been caught in embarrassing moments, Dr Merie believes it’s important not to overreact because that would make the situation even worse and awkward.
At the same time, she doesn’t believe it’s her duty to spread the word about Hijab or Islam, saying she’d happily respond to any "respectful" inquiries she receives.
“I’d also ask a Sikh about the Turban.”
Due to religious limitations, Dr Merie is unable to join her colleagues in social events but says they’re aware of cultural barriers.
“I have to miss out on a few events because veiled women can get weird looks in certain places and make them feel unwelcome."