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'You must be a terrorist': When 'true bogans' meet Muslim men

Society

The treatment of Australian women who wear the hijab has been widely reported. Here are the stories of the Muslim men who have been singled out, abused and threatened for wearing cultural clothing in public.

On a cold night in Sydney's CBD, the city is bright with lights and colour. It is the evening of Eid, a time of celebration for Muslims marking the end of weeks of fasting. A teenage boy is walking through the city in a salwar kameez when a man approaches him. "Are you a Muslim?" he asks. The boy says, yes, he is. "Oh. So, you must be a terrorist, then."

The teenage boy is Umair Rana, a young Australian, of Pakistani descent, who grew up in Western Sydney.

"What am I supposed to reply, when someone tells me I'm a terrorist, randomly? I just walked off. There's no point even arguing with these kinds of people … he was a true bogan. They spit out all this stuff.

"It was weird as well. There were lots of people walking in the city and they were giving me 'dirties'. [Another] person, he was confused, he was like, 'I don't mean to be rude or anything, but what is this? Why are you wearing this?'"

Umair is not alone in his experience. A friend who wore a salwar kameez in Epping was taunted and threatened.

"He was casually walking and there was a bunch of white boys and they were like, 'Go back to where you came from! If you don't, we're going to come and kill you!'" Umair recalls. "This happened in Epping, which is quite weird, because Epping is a very multicultural suburb."

Sharp dresser

Umair Rana is comfortable in Western and cultural Pakistani attire.

Jameel Ahmed, also from Western Sydney, has experienced discrimination when wearing the Islamic jubba (an ankle-length tunic) and taqiya (prayer hat). "We, as a group, came out of our prayer session on Friday and a young redhead yelled … obscenities as he drove past," Ahmed says.

Despite such incidents, there has been no widespread discussion on the stereotyping of Muslim men for their Islamic dress. Instead, calls for support and acceptance of Islamic dress have focused exclusively on Muslim women.

In 2017, The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC Online each ran at least 16 headlines relating to burqas but none making mention of Islamic men's salwar kameez, jubba or taqiya.

"You could say…men in Islamic attire raise more inquisitive eyebrows than women," says Ahmed. He believes that there should be equal support for Muslim men and women to wear religious clothing, as the Koran calls for modesty for both sexes.

"There might be a misconception at large on the part of ill-informed Muslims or non-Muslims … that the modest dress codes are not applicable to both sexes," says Ahmed. "Islamic clothing is inseparable for both men and women."

It was heart-breaking to watch. I didn't understand for a long time and I remember always wondering, 'Why him?' He was just my dad.

He says generations of elders and predecessors "dating back to the Beloved Prophet's time" have worn [the kameez and jubba], with modesty, both for comfort and to meet prayer requirements. But, for the wider public, it is not a priority to dwell too hard on negative portrayals of Muslims unless it impacts them personally, so they have don't question them and the sensationalist portrayals become socially ingrained.

"One sits in the comfort of his or her cosy retreat and plays armchair analyst, jury, judge and executioner of the temporary information feed just sold to them [by the media], hot and palatable," says Ahmed.

There is also a misconception that only "fundamentalist" Muslim men wear the salwar kameez. In fact, many men say they wear the kameez or jubba as an expression of cultural (rather than religious) identity, with the style and pattern of the clothing differing by its country of origin in much the same way as Scots use different tartans to distinguish clan identity.

"The media…they're all just hating on Muslims," says Umair, who wears his kameez for both cultural and religious reasons. "You have to accept it, this misunderstanding that they have that all Muslims are terrorists … anyone who wears his cultural clothes, he's probably hiding a bomb underneath there.

"Your clothes are basically like a representation of what you are."

Ruqayyah Sarwar, a young Muslim woman from Bankstown, agrees that despite the importance of Islamic dress to both men and women, there is less support for men who dress to express their culture and religion.

Ruqayyah Sarwar says it's time to look at attitudes to Muslim men's dress.Photo: NAZLA SAJED

"The coverage has mainly been on the hijab and Muslim women. It's time to look at Muslim men as well. They wear their faith outwardly too and need to be accepted as well," she said.

She vividly recalls an incident where she and her father were stopped and he was verbally assaulted by two men on their way to the mosque during Ramadan for nightly prayers.

"It was one of the scariest moments of my life … They yelled things like, 'You're not welcome here!'

It was heart-breaking to watch. I didn't understand for a long time and I remember always wondering, 'Why him?' He was just my dad.

"It's a big deal. It's just not right. Australia preaches values of acceptance but if it were true I wouldn't have had to witness that as a child."

There is little, if any, collation of data on this issue done in Australia. UNSW Professor Maree Higgins, who researches islamophobia, says of the lack of focus on discrimination against Muslim men, "I think probably a focus on women is for a variety of reasons, a construction of women as victims and as potentially more vulnerable then men." Describing herself as someone with an understanding of the topic, rather than an expert in it, she says, "men are seen as more strong ... there is that cultural construction to fit in and perhaps that strength of males in Islamic communities."

Umair says there is a "long way to go" until Muslim men are also accepted for adhering to modest and cultural dress practices. He is philosophical, saying "if they're gonna hate on you, they're gonna hate on you". In the meantime, he stresses the importance of remaining calm and true to his identity when responding to public attacks on his choice of clothing.

"[Feeling angry] is not really going to change it …There's no point escalating the situation into a fight, or a verbal argument," he says. "Just stay calm and tell them that this perception they have, that all Muslims are terrorists, is different. Muslims…they're nice people…caring, loving.

Ahmed says he has grown indifferent to the negative reactions to his attire. "When I was young and self-conscious I was perhaps a bit reluctant … in order to fit in. With time I have become immune to the looks and stares and [I'm] pretty comfortable these days."

Umair has an answer for those people telling him to stop wearing Islamic clothing. He'll take the line his friend used when he was harassed by bullies in Epping: "I appreciate your opinion but it's not gonna happen. I'm born and raised Australian, just the way you were."

Additional reporting by Abhranil Hazra and Nazla Sajed