A woman who says she was told she would not be welcome back to a venue in a hijab is on the verge of an anti-discrimination complaint which, ironically, has drawn an openly racist backlash on social media. Max Chalmers reports.
It’s the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that inevitably follows allegations of racism or religious discrimination in Australia.
A Noosa badminton tournament has become the unlikely backdrop to a heated debate about the treatment of a Muslim woman at a local RSL, now subject to a pending complaint to Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Commission.
Controversial in its own right, the incident has triggered a flurry of online abuse and open Islamophobia.
Hijran, a 35-year-old Melbourne woman who asked to keep her second name private, was in town with four other women to take part in the competition when she was questioned about her hijab at the Tewantin-Noosa RSL during a team dinner.
She says a member of staff approached her out of what she initially assumed to be curiosity about the headscarf. But, according to Hijran’s account, she was then informed that the garment was counter to the venue’s dress code, and although she would be allowed to stay for the evening she would not be able to return in the religious dress.
“[The staff member] said something along the lines of ‘we will allow you to stay on this occasion but if it was on a regular basis we would have to ask you to leave’,” she said.
Initially unfussed, Hijran grew increasingly irritated by the incident.
“I just wanted to enjoy myself but my mind kept going back to the incident. I thought later on: I was discriminated against,” she said. “…I thought I was ok at the time but later as it sunk in thought ‘that wasn’t very nice, how I was treated’.”
Phil Stephenson, CEO of Tewantin-Noosa RSL, disputes Hijran’s account of the event, though he did not witness it directly.
He said that according to a statement given to him by the staff member involved they had initially failed to recognise the hijab as a religious item, which should be exempt from the venue’s dress code on a religious basis. He said as soon as the staff member identified the item as of religious significance a “friendly chat” ensued.
When pushed on how Hijran’s understanding of the event had become so different to his he said, in relation to her account, “I don’t entirely believe it”. Stephenson declined to put New Matilda in contact with staff who directly witnessed the event and would not forward the statement tendered to him by the staff member involved.
After news of the incident spread among other members of the badminton tournament there was anger. One woman – not known personally to Hijran – left a post criticising the RSL on its Facebook page.
And then the inevitable happened.
Under the post a string of racial and religious abuse began.
Despite the club insisting it allows religious and medical exemptions for head coverings in all cases, some leaving comments said they supported the club preventing Muslim women wearing hijabs so that “the rules apply to everyone equally”. Others were more overt.
“Islam is not a religion but an evil cult. Dont [sic]like the rules? Keep out, simple as that,” Raymond Stuart wrote.
“stop playing the anti muslim [sic]card all the time you stupid muslims! [sic],” said Jason Hude.
When someone suggested this statement in fact proved Hude was himself racist, he replied: “And you prove why we call muslims [sic]terrorists and backward wife beating, boy raping, pedophile [sic]loving goat fuckers! you [sic]ignorant muslim [sic]pork eating moron!”
“Muslims, you can always rely on them to tell lies,” wrote Alan Prokes.
Hijran had no doubts about her account, and said the incident was definitely about more than the dress code. Born in Australia, she said other incidents of discrimination – such as being yelled at to ‘go back to where you came from’ on the streets – had always been brushed off, but this one had stayed with her.
“Maybe because I was on holiday I was more vulnerable,” she said.
The staff member did not use racial language, but Hijran disagreed the conversation had been pleasant or jovial.
Several of the comments in the (ever growing) thread on Facebook stood up for her.
“Religious discrimination is a big No no [sic]in Australia,” said Hisham Moustafa. “Clearly wearing religious attire is not deemed to be rude. Would you ask a nun to remove her headgear? No.
In a statement issued on the Tewantin Noosa RSL Facebook page, Stephenson said he would “note tolerate profanity and hateful comments” and would delete remarks of that nature.
Under the post one person replied: “SORRY but TRUE MOSLEMS do not get into SPORTS ACTIVITIES NOR do they eat food that is NOT Halal this is a PURE CAE of trying to GRAB some free money off the RSL!”
Another post linked the incident to “#creepingsharia” and Islamic State.
Hijran said she wanted to ensure other Muslim women visiting the venue were not treated the same way.
“We’re living in the 21st century, things like this shouldn’t be happening,” she said.
She has not received a formal apology.
Asked if anything would change going forward, Stephenson said staff had been apologetic on the night and insisted the club would continue to institute an exemption for clothing restrictions on the basis of religion.
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