Daily Life: World Hijab Day should only be the start

Check out this piece I wrote for the Daily Life a little while back!



World Hijab Day was celebrated by a reported 116 countries around the world on 1 February this year.  The initiative, started by New Yorker Nazma Khan, seeks to promote understanding and harmony by celebrating the hijab and encouraging non-Muslims to try it on and see what it 'feels like to be a Muslim'.

It is fantastic that the world came together to celebrate the hijab.  If, however, the aim is to foster true connection and understanding of Muslim women, the focus has to be on more than simply focus on what they wear.

The campaign has its merits; there is no denying that there is a space for symbolism in the public realm. But the initiative can also be seen as exploiting the symbolic nature of the hijab by using the style of covering as a gateway for people to engage with the religion in an introductory fashion.

The fact is, for better or for worse, the visibility of the hijab (and the ease in which it can be policed) has made it a powerful symbol. It has evolved into a lightening rod around which debates and discussions about Islam's role in the West are centered and goes some way towards explaining why the concept of a 'World Hijab Day' is popular.

However, if the conversation stops at symbolism, which it so often does, the effect becomes to trivialise rather than achieve any sort of deeper connection and understanding.  By focusing on an item or style of clothing, we again run the risk of reducing Muslim women to objects.

Ironically, this is the complete opposite of what the hijab is designed to achieve.  By intimating that donning the hijab will allow the wearer to 'see what life is like as a Muslim woman', it also subtly implies that the hijab is one of the only things that makes a woman Muslim.  This does have the unfortunate side effect of ostracizing Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab.

This is not to say that the concept of World Hijab Day is entirely flawed.  By demystifying it in some sense, progress is made.  However, it becomes concerning when time and time again, the only discourse about Muslim women is confined to the hijab.

To enrich and broaden the narrative, we should instead focus on the stories, lives and achievements of Muslim women across the board, regardless of their choice of clothing.  We should recognise Muslim women as active and engaged members of the community. These are women who are doctors, engineers, accountants as well as  mothers, politicians and scholars.

Women like Ayesha Farooq, a female fighter pilot in Pakistan, or Ibtihaj Muhammad, a female fencing Olympian.  Women like my very own mother, who tells stories of standing up to soldiers during the coup in Sudan when she was a student.  She was never defined by her clothes but always by her steely determination to make the most of life and provide the best opportunities for her children.

It has to be said though, that part of the impetus is also on us as Muslim women.  We cannot simply continue to be defined by, and allow the world to define us by, the clothing and modesty choices we uphold.  We cannot wait for others to tell our story.  Although it may be frustrating to have to do so, these are the times we live in and so we have to actively ensure that the narratives we tell about ourselves are more than just about our physicality.

When we reach the point where the hijab is no longer something 'remarkable' in the literal sense of the word, we have reached a true understanding. Let's aim for that.

SBS Comment: I'm an undercover hijabi too?

Check out this piece I wrote for SBS Online!

When I'm at work on the rigs, it turns out I'm an undercover hijabi.

The experience I have reflects what blogger Leena talks about in her piece 'I took my hijab off for a day'. She describes a complete shift in the way she was perceived by society after she accidentally covered her hijab up with a knit hat and scarf.

The style of hijab I usually wear is flowy, full of tassels and in some ways an occupational health and safety hazard around heavy machinery. While on site I wear a head covering that has been described by coworkers as a 'tea cosy'; a beanie and bandana combination similar to a style favoured by Egyptian ladies. I wore it for a while without realising my coworkers didn't see it as a religious head covering.

I was loving the fact that I wasn't experiencing the racisim in country Australia that I had expected. This fantasy was ubruptly burst when a colleague asked if I ever took the tea cosy off.

'Nah,' I replied easily. 'I'm a Muslim woman, this is what I wear as a hijab on the rig.'

A look of confusion crossed his face and the topic was dropped. It didn't take me too long after that to join the dots.

'Hey, you know I'm Muslim, right?' I asked another fellow that I'd become friends with.

'What? Really? Nah I didn't know...'

'Oh, well why do you think I wear this?' I asked, pointing at my head.

'Oh, I thought it was a fashion thing, or maybe for safety ...'

Like Leena in her piece, this left me feeling confused. The next day, I wore a full hijab (the traditionally wrapped kind) to the crib room for breakfast. You could have been forgiven for thinking people thought I was a completely different person.

It wasn't until I began interacting like the loud, feisty person I always am that people warmed to my presence. The experiments was repeated at a bigger mining style camp and again, the difference in attitudes was startling.

With a beanie, you are just a chick who is cold. With a headscarf, you are the new local tourist attraction and smiles are returned only occasionally and almost fearfully. Suddenly, you're are a foreigner in your own home.

Being a hijabi in the West has its challenges. You're extremely visible as a representative of the religion and people on all sides of the fence see it as their role to police, have an opinion, and a right to comment on your choice. You are constantly asked to justify the actions and mistakes of every extremist that chooses to do something crazy and inhumane in the name of your religion. These are roles that we hijabis have simply become accustomed to filling, part of the deal in a way.

To get a 'get out of jail free card' by wearing something not recognisable gives me mixed feelings. Occasionally, it feels like cheating to be wearing something that people don't associate with Islam for practical reasons while also working to fulfil the conditions of my belief. At the same time, religion and politics are two topics that are avoided like the plague in any blue collar crib room, and so keeping it as personal as possible is a natural default in this environment.

It would be fair to argue everyone should be accepting regardless of what kind of head covering is worn, be it a beanie, a hijab or a ninja-style niqab. Realistically, many are just not ready yet for such changes in their environment and find hijab - for better or for worse - confronting. An effective response is akin to tailoring a message for different audiences: if a group is not at all primed, they'll close their minds off completely to confrontational messaging. The hope is that perhaps as my colleagues now see me as a person first, the common ground found will help reduce ignorance and forge understanding.

When I'm not on the rig, I go back to wearing my classic brightly coloured flowing pieces. They feel like 'me', a part of my identity, something I do for God and an external representation of my faith. It is interesting to consider how many interactions have been missed because people have already made their decision on what I represent based on the type of wrapping I have used on my head.

My way around it at the moment? Grabbing every opportunity to chat to those people, and the more traditionally dressed I am, the better. A slightly inappropriate joke, or a comment about my love of motorsport and knowledge of engines usually shocks them enough for them to forget what I look like for a moment and be drawn into a chat. Then, everyone wants to know what the bikie and the hijabi are laughing uproariously about. Nothing breaks down barriers in Australia like a well timed self deprecating joke.

It may not be perfect, but until all facets of our society become comfortable with seeing displays of faith like the hijab and what they represent, we may have to be more creative about our engagement and representation. After all, to be seen as a foreigner in the only country we know as home is a lonely place indeed. It is a two way street though, and ultimately, it is all about finding the place where we belong in the patchwork fabric of Australia's identity while holding (and displaying) the true values of Islam and faith dear.


Safety: Seriously Super or Silliness?

Anyone who works in an industrial setting is familiar with the concept of Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S, HSE, or one of the multitude of variations on the name).

Working in the field, the battle around OH&S and its acceptance is relentless.  Every company has their version of a set of 'Golden Rules', a specific training course designed to get you up to date and a regime of hazard observation and constant reporting that is allegedly designed to make workplaces safer.

Does it? Well, perhaps the proof is in the pudding...

Incidents are certainly occurring at a lower rate than they were 20 or 30 years ago.  However, there is something to be said for trying to avoid a safety culture that is about stifling productivity.

So where is the line between taking care of people and stifling their ability to work and think?

The answer isn't clear; obviously, since thousands of corporate man-hours have gone into thinking about this.  It does not help that we live in such a litigious society, meaning a portion of the motivation is what I like to call "booty insurance(or better known in the industry as CYA - Cover Your A***).  In the absence of academic knowledge in the area, I have decided to go with my personal-anthropological-observational-learnings and extrapolate wildly from there.

In a couple of interesting conversations recently, starkly different attitudes towards safety have come to light in sharp relief.  Here are a couple of the different characters people (by and large) fall into.

The old bloke who does NOT think any of the safety initiatives make an ounce of a difference.

"Back in my day..."

The standard call of the old-timer is that back in his day things were different and people were fine.

Except they weren't always fine, and when you dig a little deeper they usually admit a lot of people were hurt ("oh yeh, he put his back out, oh yeh, well he only has three fingers now").

They do have a fair point in saying that excessive reporting  does not necessarily mean people are thinking more about the task at hand.

These (mostly) men usually have their hearts in the right place and seemingly the largest frustration is not at the interest in safety, but the tools used to implement them.  Extra paperwork, repetitious reporting and superfluous systems often cause rejection of the concept outright rather than a tenacious engagement the rest of us green hands could use.

The young one who has just accepted it is a numbers game.

A fair few of young lads and ladies coming into the system fit into this category.  We understand it is a requirement - we haven't known the system to be any different really - and follow only because we must.

Write one hazard per person per day? Done.

Think about one hazard per person per day? Hmm, not so much.

True engagement in the system isn't guaranteed, and this is the weakness in the system.  How do you force people to think?  The frameworks in place are supposed to do this, yet...

The safety lad / lady who has never worked on the rig/in the workshop/on the track.

The archetype of the disliked safety official.

An individual who exists more in people's minds than in reality, this the type of individual who enjoys reporting on others without a conversation first, does not necessarily take on feedback from the field operators and generally is a blight on the safety cause.

Perhaps companies are more this character than individuals though.  People can be reasoned with, most of the time. Corporations and institutions are much more behemoth.

The safety person who has seen too many people get (or almost get) hurt and wants to do something about it.

...and this is the person who has the capacity to make the most difference.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the safety personnel on site that I have met are of this variety.  It is just unfortunate that they have to seemingly fight a battle with their institution to be able to communicate the culture and restrictions on site to the rule makers in the office.


The cowboy culture of doing things crazily and dangerously is not as prevalent as people think (or as I thought it would be), particularly in Australia.  So suffocation of field operators with rules and regulations can be self defeating if it is excessive and the monotony or ineffectiveness of the tool removes from the outcome.  For example, operating procedures that are 50 pages long when all that is needed is a simple step-by-step 'this is how you use this piece of equipment' in a way that mitigates the hazards.  By over-complicating the tool, people are dissuaded from using it.

Another example is the banning of products in a reactionary manner due to an involvement in a single incident.  There is a rumour that a mine site banned rags as they were involved in some sort of incident, only to reinstate them a few days later as they realised the workshop couldn't really operate without rags.

Ultimately, however, we all want to go home, and being safe in a workplace is imperative in allowing that to happen.  For that to happen, safety must be a part of the equation.  The trick is to getting the balance right.  Like everything else, that involves communication, respect and a healthy teaspoon of cement.

(I kid).

What do you think?

Brisbane Times: Women taking the lower paid jobs?


Here is an article I recently published as an opinion piece for the Brisbane Times.  Check it out here…or comment below!


Are women really getting paid less?

When I first came across the article on the apparent "gender pay gap doubling in a year", I couldn't believe my eyes.

However, when I stopped to think about it, the concept didn't make sense to me, particularly from a graduate point of view.  In my field of engineering, salaries for graduates are set for everyone, regardless of gender.  In fact, I was sure that the females in my graduate class were getting the higher salaries!  Where then was this information coming from?

A quick investigation showed there was a misinterpretation of the Australian government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency's report.  There was, in fact, no actual change in percentage of difference since last year which remained at 3 per cent (WEGA, 2012).


However, a difference of 3 per cent is still a discernible inequality.  Why does this gap exist? It cannot be that employers are actively paying women less. We are in the 21st century, after all.

It would seem that the view that the WEGA report is taking is a macro view, one of graduates generally, as opposed to the micro perspectives of men and women in particular fields.  For example, males are clearly overrepresented in fields such as construction (88 per cent), mining (85 per cent), and manufacturing (75 per cent), according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Females on the other hand, are overrepresented in the social services; Health care and social assistance employs 78 per cent females, education and training 70 per cent, and 56 per cent in retail trade. Furthermore, ABS data shows 76 per cent of those in clerical and administration are females.  It is no secret that the fields of mining and construction pay more than health care and education.

So it isn't that employers are paying women differently, it is that there are more females in the lower paying roles and industries.

Is this something that needs to be changed?  Perhaps, and it raises questions about social bias, work-life balance, gendered roles in society and possible disadvantages within the workforce.

Personally, I don't think there is a systemic disadvantage to women, especially not at the graduate level.  There are plenty of equality acts and antidiscrimination laws to protect the rights of almost any group in the workforce, particularly women.  However, there are definitely social biases that play a part.

Engineering, for example, still has extremely low rates of female participation; not because women are less capable, but because girls don't always see it as a natural option (I am still approached by high school girls who say "I'm considering engineering, but isn't that a guy's job?").

Compounding this, the social industries (that have an overrepresentation of women) have lower income levels than technical roles.  Does society undervalue our 'caring' roles, or is it just a case of different jobs deserve different pay levels?

From a long term career perspective, there are numerous studies that indicate women don't find themselves in the pipeline to leadership due to a variety of reasons.  For instance, men hold 2148 crucial line positions in the ASX 500; women hold 141 similar positions. (Australian Census of Women in Leadership, 2012).

So not only does a gap exist at the graduate level, it compounds exponentially throughout the progression of a career.

The question of the pay gap or women's participation and influence in the workforce isn't going to be solved overnight.  It is clear that although there have been great inroads made into women's equality of opportunity in the workforce; a discrepancy still exists at a macro level.

If we want to achieve true equality of outcome, as a society we need to think of more effective ways of unlocking the potential in half our population.

Read the original.


So what do you think?