SHAFAQNA – Once a month on a Sunday afternoon, a dozen Muslim women meet at the Moroccan Deli-Cacy on Lygon St and take up positions on tables and benches.
The women sip tea, nibble on biscuits and wait for their dates, who line up out the door to meet their matches.
But it’s not romance they want to share — it’s enlightenment.
Restaurateur Hana Assafiri said her Speed Date a Muslim event was an instant hit when she launched it earlier this year, thanks to its simple premise: come and ask a Muslim woman anything you like.
She was motivated by the sense that something in the national mood had shifted and Muslims were being marginalised.
“I wanted to start a conversation between Muslims and non-Muslims in a space that is open and free to everyone,” she said.
Ms Assafiri opens each session with a pep talk, which gives way to a series of flowing discussions in which a diverse range of guests pepper their Muslim hosts with questions, from political to personal.
Many of the questions asked this month were simple but honest: ‘Why do you wear the headscarf?’
Other questions were more complex: ‘What do we do about ISIS?’
Sareh, a school principal, said coming to the event let her express herself as a Muslim woman.
“The biggest myth is that we are oppressed, that we don’t have a voice,” she said.
Sareh, who did not want her surname published, said it was much harder for young Muslims growing up now than in previous decades.
“We teach our students to be productive Muslims. There’s no point being ashamed of their identity,” she said.
The questioners come from all across Melbourne, drawn by the unique opportunity for open discussion.
Lily, a personal trainer, said she had never met a Muslim before moving to Australia from her native Mexico.
“We only see them in the media,” she said.
Rose, a psychologist, said she came to clear up myths about the religion she converted to 24 years ago.
“Sharia is completely misunderstood. It’s about justice and the way we live our lives,” she said.
Ms Assafiri closed the event with an appeal to the better side of Australians.
“I believe in the Australian character. We laugh in the face of authority, we wear thongs to court and we give more to charity per capita than any other nation,” she said.
“We’re told there is a clash of civilisations, but there’s really just a clash of absurdities.”