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Bombs, Beards and the Salwar Kameez: Exploding the Silence on Islamic Men and Religious Dress

By Reena Mukherjee

During Eid festivals next month, Islamic Australians from across NSW will attend celebrations in their religious attire, with a growing number of calls from lobby groups for greater acceptance of women donning the burqa or hijab. But what about the men? Here are the stories of the kameez-wearing males who have become accustomed to stares, harassment and death threats for wearing religious garments in public.

On a cold night in Sydney’s CBD, the city is bustling with chatter, 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 Caucasian man approaches him. “Are you a Muslim?” He asks the boy, who tells him that yes, he is, indeed, Muslim. “Oh.” The Caucasian man looks him up and down, and says, “So you must be a terrorist, then.”

The teenage boy was Umair Rana, a young Pakistani Muslim who grew up in Western Sydney.

Umair Rana believes Islamic dress is central to his identity

“I was just walking and one of these guys comes up to me and goes, ‘Oh, that’s a really nice dress…where are you from?’” Umair said.

“I said ‘I’m from Pakistan,’ and he goes, ‘That’s nice…are you a Muslim?’ I said yes. He goes, ‘Oh, so you must be a terrorist, then, because you wear these sorts of clothes and you’re from the area.’

“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 knows he is not alone. His friend who wore a salwar kameez in Epping was threatened with death.

“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 said.

“[My friend] was like, ‘What’s with the random hatred, I don’t understand.’ Similar to me, he stayed calm, he said, ‘I appreciate your opinion but it’s not gonna happen. I’m born and raised Australian, just the way you were.’

“…This happened in Epping, which is quite weird, because Epping is a very multicultural suburb.”

Umair said he felt more comfortable wearing his shalwar kameez in Pakistan, where people took a “you do you, I’ll do me” approach to individuals wearing both Islamic and Western clothing.

Umair Rana wears Western clothing

“[I like to wear religious clothes] if it’s an important day in our religion or I just want to wear it for religious purposes…the thing is, here, it’s different. When I’m in Pakistan I can wear it whenever I want, wherever I want.”

Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission reveals that only around 6.5% of Islamophobic incidents are reported. Jameel Ahmed, a father and Western Sydney local who wears the Islamic jubba and prayer hat on a regular basis, said that age was an “immunising” factor, making some Muslim men indifferent to religious discrimination.

“Once we [Jameel and his fellow Muslim worshippers] as a group came out of our prayer session on Friday and a young redhead yelled some obscenities as he drove past,” Jameel said.

“Islamic clothing is inseparable for both men and women.

“…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.”

Imam-in-Training at Nepean Mosque displays his religious attire

A Google search on the topic of discrimination for religious attire in Australia consistently results in articles about the vilification of women.

According to Jameel, “There might be a misconception at large on the part of ill-informed Muslims or non-Muslims…that modest dress codes are not applicable to both sexes.

“You could say…men in Islamic attire raise more inquisitive eyebrows than women.”

Ruqayyah Sarwar, a young Muslim woman from Bankstown, agrees that there is less awareness and support for men who dress in the jubba or salwar than women who wear hijabs and burqas.

“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.

Ruqayyah believes in equality for men and women when it comes to religious dress

“A couple of years back, my dad and I were on our way to the mosque during Ramadan for a nightly prayer and…he was stopped by two males and verbally assaulted right in front of me. It was one of the scariest moments of my life…it’s still pretty vivid in my mind. …They yelled things like, ‘You’re not welcome here!’

“I was a lot younger so I kinda just stood there, stuck. 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.”

In 2017 alone, the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC each ran approximately sixteen headlines relating to burqas. Neither news outlets had headlines making any mention of Islamic males’ salwar kameez, jubba or taqiya (Islamic prayer hat).

Cultural dress is important to all generations of males at Rooty Hill Masjid

“I’d really love to see improved…story-telling about…Muslim men…I do think there’s potential for change,” said Ms Maree Higgins, a PhD student researching Islamophobia at the UNSW School of Social Sciences.

Her view that the media plays a role in Australians’ perception of Muslim men was echoed by Umair and Jameel.

Maree Higgins researches Islamaphobia at UNSW

“The media…they’re all just hating on Muslims…if they’re gonna hate on you, they’re gonna hate on you,” Umair said.

“[Feeling angry] is not really going to change it, just like the fact that you have to accept this misunderstanding they have that all Muslims are terrorists. The misunderstanding that…anyone who wears his cultural clothes is probably hiding a bomb underneath there.

“There’s no point escalating the situation into a fight, or a verbal argument,” he said.

“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.”

Meanwhile, Jameel said that both the media and viewers are to blame for the stereotyping of Muslim men with beards and Islamic attire as terrorists.

“A very, very large portion of the blame lies on the doorsteps of irresponsible and biased coverage…viewers are gullible enough to swallow what they are fed…not having time to reflect and question what they have just seen or heard.

“It’s not a priority to dwell on…unless it impacts you personally…as 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, hot and palatable.”

According to Ruqayyah, the media is key to addressing the inconsistency between Australian values and the reality of life in Sydney.

“It’s a big deal [that people realise] it’s just not right. Australia preaches values of acceptance, but if it were true, I wouldn’t have had to witness what I did as a child.”

Man wearing taqiya removes shoes at Rooty Hill Masjid