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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6784

Senator NETTLE (7:36 PM) —I rise to bring to the parliament's attention an innovative idea that was born of one woman's desire for a positive gesture to support Muslim women across Australia in increasingly difficult times. I am talking about the first National Headscarf Day, which is to be held on 29 November this year. Since September 11, we have witnessed a sharp increase in racially motivated attacks on Muslims in this country. Indeed, over the last three years, the number of formal complaints about racial vilification in New South Wales has more than doubled. Perhaps the even more frightening aspect of this is that, according to Chris Puplick, the President of the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, 16,000 phone calls to the discrimination board have been from people who are too afraid to make a formal complaint or cannot identify their attackers. This is symptomatic of the climate of fear that has emerged in Australia, unchecked by our government. Last month, Mr Puplick said in a speech at the University of Sydney:

At the end of the day racism like any other great social evils of our society, needs to be combated by a combination of education and leadership. Leadership comes from many quarters, from our public intellectuals, from our community role models and from our politicians.

There are simple ways in which politicians can help to stem this tide of violence, but unfortunately the government has failed to meet this challenge. Indeed the government's divisive response to recent world events, as well as the continued and appalling mistreatment of asylum seekers, has fanned the flames of racist sentiment in this country, thereby adding legitimacy to these senseless attacks.

Muslim women, particularly those who wear the traditional headscarf, are an easy target for racial violence. The majority of anti-Muslim attacks have been directed at women of all ages. Women have been taunted, had their headscarves ripped off and, in the most serious cases, have been physically abused. Women have had lit cigarettes thrown at them, have been spat on in the streets and have been pushed off trams and buses. In a Sydney shopping mall, one Muslim woman's face was smashed into the floor. She was reportedly told by her attackers to `go home'. The awful irony of that particular incident is that the woman was Aboriginal.

In another incident in Melbourne a young pregnant Muslim woman was harassed by two young men on a tram. Appallingly, no passengers came to her aid. Eventually, the tram driver stopped the tram and told the men responsible to get off. I find it profoundly embarrassing to hear of these incidents occurring in Australia, especially when I hear that others have not come to the assistance of the women involved. Supporters of peace and harmony in our society, when continually hearing of these incidents, are compelled to act. The irrational basis of these kinds of attacks is exemplified by the reports of young girls being cruelly taunted on their way to and from school.

Not long after September 11, we heard about a Muslim woman who was verbally assaulted on a train in Sydney. When she alerted security guards to this abuse, she was told to `move to another carriage'. This kind of attack, and the sometimes indifferent response of authorities, has escalated since the Bali atrocities. Indeed, this abuse has escalated to the point where many Muslim women prefer to live in a state of virtual home imprisonment rather than run the gauntlet of racial abuse in their towns. It is unacceptable that women in Australia should have to put up with this kind of harassment.

In the current political climate, and whilst our government continues to advocate a war on Iraq, attacks against members of the Muslim community will continue. It is often difficult to know what we can do to express our opposition to this racial scapegoating. National Headscarf Day provides us with a symbolic opportunity to voice our opposition. It is a national day of solidarity with Muslim women and a protest against racially motivated attacks on Muslim women in Australian cities. The woman who proposed the idea for National Headscarf Day is a Jewish woman, a former Israeli and now Australian citizen who gave up her Israeli citizenship because she was appalled by the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. She made the courageous decision to organise National Headscarf Day because, with her background, she felt she simply could not sit by and watch while Muslim people, and women in particular, became the target of racism.

On 29 November this year I will be visiting a mosque in Melbourne with other women from the Greens. We will be wearing headscarves in public to show the Muslim community that the perpetrators of these cowardly attacks, and indeed our government, do not speak for us when they engage in racial vilification, harassment and abuse. I will be joining thousands of women across Australia who will be part of this solidarity action. I invite other female parliamentarians to do likewise.