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Looking for Empathy, Not Love, at ‘Speed Date a Muslim’

It was after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that Ms. Assafiri, a Muslim woman of Moroccan and Lebanese parents, said she first became aware of anti-Islamic sentiment in Australia. But in the last two and a half years, as high-profile terrorist attacks by Muslims have increased distrust of the group, she said she had felt fear and prejudice shift further into mainstream Australian discourse.


Manal Shehab speaks with non-Muslim attendees of Speed Date a Muslim about her life and experiences as a Muslim woman. Credit Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

She pointed to Sonia Kruger, the co-host of a popular morning television program who, on air in July 2016, suggested a total ban on Muslim immigration into Australia. Last month Pauline Hanson, the leader of the right-wing One Nation Party, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling for migrants and refugees on terrorist watch lists to be deported or interned.

On a more personal note, Ms. Assafiri, her staff and their female Muslim friends openly recount stories of abuse, of men trying to run them over in their cars, or of their adolescent daughters receiving death threats on the street. Ms. Assafiri believes these threats are largely directed at Muslim women rather than Muslim men, because, she said, they’re the “softer target.”

Speed Date a Muslim is in many ways an effort to combat the dehumanization that lies at the core of these threats, she said. It is about highlighting the nuance of the individual, and female, Muslim experience.

Some of those attending the event in June seemed to be there mainly to lend support. Others were sincere and candid about their concerns — including Maureen Colman, 64, who came to the event with her sister, Mary Dykes, 69. Both said they had a Catholic background.

Just before sitting down, Ms. Colman said some Muslim clothing was a point of discomfort for her, particularly the full-body or face coverings such as the burqa or the niqab, which she worries is uncomfortable and “cruel.” She compared the full covering to the heavy clothing of Orthodox Jews in Melbourne’s southeast, which she said she also found “extreme.”

As the one-hour event kicked off, silver trays of powdered Turkish delight and squares of syrup-soaked basbousa appeared. Some people started eating. Others hesitated. It was nearing the end of Ramadan, during which many of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims — including some women here — were fasting during daylight hours.


The free monthly event invites the public to come and ask questions of Muslim women in the spirit of opening conversations and breaking down stereotypes. Credit Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

A number of the conversations began with questions about Ramadan (“Do you just pig out?”). Then it drifted to the hijab (“Do you have beautiful, long hair under there?”) and to whether the women had been coerced into wearing it.

Topics of racism arose (“What can I do to be more welcoming to you, if I saw you on the street?”), as did terrorism (“Why do they say they’re doing this for Allah?”) and domestic violence.

The Muslim women meandered through their answers politely, with occasional surprises. Manal Shehab, 50, the only woman in the room wearing a niqab, said she wore it for 24 years previously and only recently stopped, although she still wears it to Speed Date a Muslim events to represent that group of women.

The moment of greatest tension emerged when one woman wanted to discuss Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born, Dutch-American author and advocate of overhauling Islam who once called the faith “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” She “speaks a lot of sense,” the woman said.

“We love her,” Ms. Assafiri said dryly, to knowing laughter in the room. She led a video petition against Ms. Hirsi Ali’s planned speaking tour to Australia earlier this year. The visit was canceled, although it’s unclear if that was because of the petition.

She “has no regard for how her discourse impacts the very women she’s claiming to want to empower,” Ms. Assafiri says of Ms. Hirsi Ali, cutting off the woman’s question.


Munise Kurkcu, left, part of the cafe’s all-female, all-Muslim staff, served sweets at the event in June. It was the most well-attended session since it began in late 2015. Credit Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

With that, the conversation moved on. A few minutes later, Ms. Assafiri talked about her personal experience with domestic abuse and being “disempowered by all cultural expressions called Islam.”

“I’m talking about all sorts of violence Ayaan Hirsi Ali can’t even imagine — ”

“I doubt it,” the woman said.

“I don’t think you know me, respectfully,” Ms. Assafiri replied.

While the event strives for openness and candor, sore points are hit from time to time.

Saara Sabbagh, 45, for example, has been answering questions at Speed Date since its inception. She said found the events “enriching,” but admitted they could be emotionally taxing.

“There are times I’ve had to hold back tears, you know, when you constantly hear the stereotypes and the assumptions made about you,” Ms. Sabbagh said over the phone after the event.

Near the end of the session in June, a woman asked if negative media portrayals of Islam were genuinely felt by Muslim women in Australia.

Ms. Sabbagh, wrapped in a purple head scarf, immediately spoke up, addressing the entire room.

“My 10-year-old daughter gets harassed,” she said. “Somebody calls her a terrorist and says to her: ‘We saw which house you came out of. We’re going to kill you.’”

“I’m from Syria,” she added. “People don’t need to tell us what ISIS is doing. We are at the receiving end of ISIS. We’re in this together. There’s no us and them.”

Source: NYT > World

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