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At one table, two Year 12 students from a Christian college in Melbourne's eastern suburbs listen earnestly to their 'date'.'I thought it'd be really cool to come.
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It's a tiny encounter, but it's indicative of the tensions that can emerge even in places of tolerance.'We are not speaking as Muslim scholars or advocating Islam,' says Assafiri, during a brief address to the assembled crowd.'We are here as Muslim women who believe in a progressive Islamic agenda.
It is absolutely non-judgemental of another, and it's grounded in absolute respect for the diversity that is the society that we live in.'Her friend and volunteer Sara sums it up more casually.'If we're all going to just shut off and not engage, then where's the fun in that?
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If the popularity of Hana Assafiri's Speed Date a Muslim event is anything to go by, these thoughts are rattling around the minds of many Australians.
Once a fortnight, Assafiri's Brunswick cafe Moroccan Deli-cacy plays host to a group of Muslim women who answer questions that punters might otherwise be too afraid to ask. More than 800 registered for the last event.'We all need to interrogate the assumptions we carry,' says Assafiri.'It is as much us as Muslim women reaffirming our speaking position as it is expressing who we are to an audience that respectfully wants to hear outside and beyond the stereotype that they understand.'During the Sunday afternoon sessions, Assafiri flits between tables, helping conversation along and throwing in prompts for questions.'It's not a one-sided conversation; these events become avenues of engagement and cohesion,' she says.'Experiences like this also serve to teach us about ourselves and one-another.
One of the Muslim women said to me, "I've never sat opposite a bikie before." That was amazing.' Assafiri says Australian Muslim women are still routinely harassed and abused in public.'Every time something happens overseas, even if it's 1000 miles away, we worry about the repercussions here,' says Sara, an Islamic school principal and one of the session volunteers.'I know women who have been spat on on trains and had their scarves pulled off.
I've had beer cans and eggs thrown at my car and have been rammed off a freeway.'I actually went and learnt Krav Maga in case I was attacked.'The 'speed-dating' sessions have attracted a mixed crowd so far.
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