Photo from Getty Images
I could not imagine living in a place where the threat of bombs wiping out your world constantly hangs overhead and gunshots are the soundtrack for day-to-day life. It seems like an impossible nightmare. Yet, this is reality for the millions of people living in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and many other Middle Eastern countries. There is a common misconception that migrants view “Western Society” as an idyllic place free from any hardship or suffering – when in reality they are simply escaping death. Over a million migrants from war-torn countries have fled in the past year, travelling by boat or across land to reach safety. I fully support this. But when there is a lack of mutual respect and understanding between cultures, what does it mean for women?
Many of the migrants coming from the Middle East follow the Islamic tradition, with some fleeing from areas ruled over by ISIS, the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Under these extremist groups, the rights and freedoms of many women are limited due to fundamentalist beliefs – many girls are denied an education, some are forced into marriage while still teenagers; others may even ending up in hospital after their wedding night. However, these extreme circumstances are often used as blanket examples, portraying all Islamic women as victims of oppression, often leading people to believe that the Western values and beliefs are somehow superior – which in fact shows a severe lack of understanding and appreciation of Eastern culture.
The work of Muslim human rights and women’s activists to improve the status of women in Islamic tradition goes largely unknown within the mainstream media. I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who was named Young Australian of the Year 2015. As one of many Islamic feminists, she travels the globe appealing to Muslims and non-Islamic followers alike, to promote diversity and emphasise that not all women are oppressed in the Islamic tradition. Mona Eltahawy, who moved to Saudi Arabia when she was fifteen, is another significant Islamic feminist who is currently advocating for a feminist revolution in the Middle East (and the world). Mona highlights the power of dialogue and exchange in creating harmonious communities. She writes:
“The power of words not only gives you the ammunition and the artillery with which to fight back against whatever forces you feel are silencing you, but they connect you and they help you find other people who are engaged in similar struggles so you feel these kind of parallels — your alliances”.
Most people have probably heard of the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, in 2015. Not forgetting the traumatising nature of these attacks, I think the worst aspect of these attacks by men of both Middle Eastern and Western descent, is the fact that because of it, and other similar events across the globe, many women have succumbed to a feeling of general anxiety no matter where they are, fear of what could happen if they go out alone or even with friends at night. Women should not have to live in terror of sexual attacks. It is also important to note that while these assaults were alarming, a lot of the media coverage surrounding the event presented xenophobic ideas by suggesting that migration is the sole source of rape culture and sexual assault in Europe. It’s more than disappointing that fear-factor news stories like these are incredibly common, while the incredible work by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, including founding Youth Without Borders, goes largely unacknowledged in the mainstream media.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, image from www.abc.net.au
Palestinian-Syrian journalist Riham al-Kousaa warned of the prejudice backlash arising from the events in Cologne, writing that the men committing these assaults “didn’t just harm the victims and themselves – they harmed thousands [of migrants] who left their homes because of precisely such crimes”. This increasing fear of asylum seekers is denying innocent people the right to safety and intensifying the already existing barrier between cultures. No woman should have to alter their behaviour or dress to avoid provoking attacks which should never happen in the first place. Nor should an entire culture, already a marginalised group, be blamed for the poor treatment of women. Women everywhere deserve to live in safety, and shifting the issue to focus to blame and fear is not in the best interest for any woman.
Some countries such as Norway, Denmark and Germany, which are receiving thousands of migrants, have established education programs to teach immigrants about Western culture. These programs are vital because they help migrants understand the different practices and values of Western society. In the same way, there should be more programs dedicated to teaching people about the culture of the migrants moving into their area so that both groups can live in mutual understanding of cultural diversity.
Sudanese refugees in Norway taking class in dealing with violence against women, Photo by Andrew Testa for New York Times
I agree with Arnold Plickert, leader of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of Germany’s main police union when he said, following the Cologne attacks, that although “the great majority of the people who have come to us have done so because their lives are no longer safe in their homelands… Any refugees who have a problem integrating into our open society and respecting the rights of other people” must assisted in this process. This is true to the extent that everyone must abide by the law and and respect the rights of those around them. However, integration should not mean a complete disregard for Eastern culture. A mutual lack of respect is essentially the key issue in this whole discussion – a lack of respect for the rights of women, as well as a lack of respect for other cultures. This is what we all need to work on.
I believe that people have the right to escape war and go to places where they are safe. I also believe it is vital to teach everyone to appreciate our differing cultures, so that we can begin to form a richer community that looks for the similarities between people of all backgrounds, rather than what separates us. All cultures have their own values and merit, just as all cultures have entrenched issues that govern women and limit their freedom. In some cultures, women are expected to fulfill the position of mother, and obedient wife, with little hope of an education. Australia has a plethora of gender issues which need urgent attention; domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the ever widening gender pay gap – these are just some of the issues we are yet to overcome. Equality has not been achieved for women globally, and we must all work together to make it happen.
Refugees from Syria present flowers to passers-by as they demonstrate against violence near the Cologne main train station, two weeks after the New Year’s Eve attacks. Photo by Patrik Stollarz for AFP
I believe it is vital to establish more education centers for both immigrants and locals alike to learn about their differing cultures as a way to create a more just society that values and respects both women and culture. Programs such as that in Norway which teach the right of equality between men and women are essential to allow migrants to adapt to the society they have moved to. They can help assure no more attacks like the ones in Cologne take place and on a broader scale, help women feel safe to travel in places that they always have been doing so because people of all backgrounds know the rights and freedoms each individual deserve. However, we cannot forget the sexism and misogyny which exists in Western culture. I hope that one day we can dismantle the structures of oppression in all cultures, with people across the world working together to ensure all women are treated with respect.
To find out more about the work of Yassmin Abdel-Magied click here.
To donate to the Malala Fund to help girls all over the world receive an education click here.
Eleanor is a 17 year old HSC student who adores reading and is fascinated by the different cultures of the world, having traveled to over 15 countries to get involved in their practices, customs… and of course their food. She is hoping to study forensic science at uni to put her problem solving skills to the test to try and provide justice to those who need it.