Bursting Veil Misconceptions

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia
What Is Veiling cover image cropped

Book review by Maya Borom

What is Veiling? | Edinburgh University Press

Front cover of the book, What Is Veiling?In the past month Australia has appeared preoccupied with ‘the veil’. The burqa, the niqab and the hijab have been catapulted somewhat unkindly into mainstream media due to misinformed political opinions, fear of the unknown or the ‘other’, and general misinformation about the role that it has in Muslim culture, society and religion.

Given the current environment in Australia and arguably the Western World, Sahar Amer, Professor and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney, is well placed to write a book on Islamic veiling that will introduce readers to the history and complex socio-cultural practices surrounding it in an accessible, easy to read way.

What is Veiling? is a fascinating read that traces the history of the veil from urban Mesopotamia to discussion of hijab references and it’s meaning in the Qur’an, to Islamic fashion and everything in between. When Amer talks of veiling, it means everything from the burqa to the Oman burgu (metal face veil), the leather lithma from the Gulf region and the Senegalese moussor’s (headscarf). Veiling is a diverse practice that attracts many opinions and the book aims to deepen the reader’s understanding of it through a careful exploration of the past as well as analysing contemporary practices and attitudes – from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Divided into three parts, the book not only explores Muslim attitudes to the veil, but also critiques Western approaches such as the popularity of Orientalist imagery that helped define an image of the stereotypical Middle Eastern woman of the nineteenth century – the medium changing to film once the power of Hollywood became evident. In fact, Amer points out that “Only since the nineteenth century has it been an integral part of Euro-American discourses on Islam and the Middle East”.

Indeed, she notes that negative attitudes to veiling in Europe have resulted in the banning or restriction of the burqa or niqab in numerous countries such as France with threat of imprisonment or fines of upwards of $38,000 or Belgium where it is banned from all public spaces. Such vehement opposition to a practice that has, as Amer points out, roots in traditions other than just Islam is worrying and indeed frightening. She also looks at veiling practices in the United States from a civil liberties or human rights perspective noting, in particular, the battle between the notion of freedom and the constitutional protection afforded to citizens under the First Amendment to issues of national security and distrust arising from 9/11 onwards.

The last part of the book is devoted to veiling and women, touching upon themes such as the early feminist movement in Egypt in the 1920s to stand-up comedy like The Hijabi Monologues which tried to move past audience fixation on the hijab to focus it on the woman underneath and their personal stories. Amer is also careful to include the fine arts and visual representation of veiling from Muslim artists challenging orientalist representations of themselves. The book presents both sides of the coin – women who veil and women who do not – so as to present a holistic picture of the complexities surrounding the practice.

What is Veiling? is an excellent resource that provides the reader with a great foundation on which to explore issues surrounding veiling – it is accessible, contemporary and provides recent examples about the practice, which is essential if one is to come to an understanding how veiling fits into the modern world.

Book Review of The Tribe

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia


The Tribe cover

Book review by Maya Borom

The Tribe | Giramondo Publishing

Much has been made in the past couple of weeks of Muslim cultures in Australia, pointing towards their difference rather than similarities. Rhetoric that encourages an attitude of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and breeds religious and cultural intolerance and misunderstandings.

But what happens to Arab-Australian children who are born in Australia but whose parents and family have strong ties to their homeland? Are they any less Australian than those born to Anglo parents? Are they conflicted as to where they belong and do they seem themselves as part of a wider ‘Australian’ community?

In the fictional book The Tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, we are offered a glimpse into the world of a young Arab-Australian who is growing up with the traditions of his family whispered in his ear and the culture of contemporary Australia at his immediate doorstep. Written from the perspective of Bani at age seven and ending at eleven, the narrative is honest in his observations of family and school life, and it’s this honesty that allows the reader to relate instantly to the themes in the book. Universal themes such as love, death and everything in between that shapes and makes families what they are.

The Tribe is divided into three chapters, each covering an important part of Bani’s family life, from his strong relationship with his grandmother, to a family wedding, and finally to something every family goes through, grief at losing a loved one. Ahmad has captured the essence of a boy on the cusp of young adulthood and opens up a world seen infrequently in Australian fiction – and in doing so invites the reader to recognise the same issues and emotions that befall families regardless of their socio-cultural or religious background.

Ahmad’s book is an interesting read, due in equal measure to the personalities of his characters as well as to the exploration of Arab-Australian culture in a fictional setting.

The Asylum Debate Put Simply

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia


Book review by Maya Borom

Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not | NewSouth Publishing

'Refugees' book coverThe aim of Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong’s book Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not is to educate the general public on the often complex and highly emotional issue of asylum seekers and how Australian law and policy is often at odds with it’s international legal obligations.

McAdam and Chong state from the beginning that the book is intended to appeal to a general audience. It’s not overtly academic in nature nor is it too simplistic in it’s approach to such a controversial issue in Australia. It also draws on examples from real refugees to illustrate the decisive and devastating impact of current Australian law and policy on those who are most vulnerable and who should, under international law, be protected.

Refugees sets out to introduce the reader first to the international definition of refugee, and by extension discussing the rights that are inherent with such recognition. It then moves into a discussion of temporary protection visas and whether these are consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations to provide permanent protection to refugees. McAdam and Chong take the reader on a logical journey of discovery, from identifying refugees to offshore detention and to “turning back the boats” – topics that pervade much of mainstream media and which has disturbingly, in Australia, resulted in the major political parties fighting to create the most inhuman asylum policies and laws imaginable.

The book also seeks to dispel common myths around seeking asylum that has gained media traction and is promoted heavily by the successive Australian governments, such as the idea of the “economic migrant” and Australia being “flooded” by asylum seekers. McAdam and Chong are careful to provide evidence against these claims so that the reader is able to independently verify their veracity.

Refugees frames Australia’s approach to asylum seekers in a way that is easy to read and approachable – this is essential given the controversial nature of the topic and hopefully lends itself to being read by not only those interested in human rights and Australia but also those wanting to know a little bit more about Australian refugee law and policy and international law but was always afraid to ask.

Muhgal India: Art, Culture and Empire by J. P. Losty and Malini Roy (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 31, Number 1, 2014
pp. 267-268 | 10.1353/pgn.2014.0020

From the period 1526 to 1858, the Mughals ruled over the Indian subcontinent and produced an outstanding number of manuscripts and paintings, from portraits of young princes to calligraphic hangings. A selection of these are reproduced in Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire where J. P. Losty and Malini Roy have lovingly assembled some of the best representations of Mughal art and manuscripts from the collection at the British Library and presented them as a visual statement of the prowess and artistic achievements of the once-great Mughal empire.

A comprehensive Introduction focuses on the history of key Mughal rulers to provide background to the commissioning of artworks and manuscripts. Chapter 1, ‘The Emperor Akbar’s Patronage’, describes Emperor Akbar’s expansion of the imperial studio and discusses the possible influence of European prints on local artists whose own style was a mixture of Indian, European, and Iranian elements. A beautifully illustrated painting ascribed to Dharm Das (1595–96) and entitled ‘The Man Carried Away by the Simurgh’ is a wonderful example of the eclectic style.

Chapter 2, ‘Mughal Patronage in the Seventeenth Century’, focuses on Akbar’s eldest son Salim who favoured small-scale intricate works as opposed to the large paintings and manuscripts that were created under his father (p. 80). He appears to have been fond of paintings depicting moments in his life, using the medium as a way of presenting his living memoirs.

Throughout the text, narratives are attached to each piece of artwork and so provide for an exhaustive timeline of Mughal rule in India. Chapters 3 and 4 concentrate on the eventual decline of the artistic tradition that the Mughals became world renowned for: artists started focusing on simple, singular portraits rather than being commissioned for huge, impressive pieces and, despite occasional reinvigoration of the studio and artists, it succumbed to Europeanised naturalism and lost the individualistic lustre it once held.

Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire presents a visual feast of Mughal rule as depicted in art and in manuscript and is one that is sure to delight both art and history lovers, if not for the representation of artistic skill then for the visual representation of an empire’s history.

MIFF WRAP – Point and Shoot

Point and Shoot | Marshall Curry

Point and Shoot posterFilmmaker Marshall Curry’s documentary about ex-Gaddafi prisoner and self-styled freedom fighter Matthew VanDyke is both mesmerising and disturbing. VanDkye is well known for being captured by Gaddafi forces during the Libyan civil war and for his choice to remain in Libya and re-join the National Liberation Army rather than return back to the United States.

Curry has certainly chosen an interesting character – VanDyke left the comfort of middle class America after graduating from a Masters at prestigious Georgetown University to travel across Africa and the Middle-East on a bike in a bid to find his identity. After a return stint back in the US, and with his experiences still fresh, the political situation caused by the Arab spring saw him return to take arms as a revolutionary fighter in Libya working to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

Idealistic and with a penchant for posing on camera in cameo, VanDyke films his every moment fighting to overthrow the Gaddafi government and it’s precisely this that makes for engrossing but sometimes uncomfortable viewing.

The film raises very important questions concerning the role that foreign fighters may have in conflicts around the world, particularly in light of recent allegations of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

It is legally and morally wrong for a citizen of another country to take up arms against another government? Where does one draw the line if it is viewed as acceptable to be a revolutionary fighter in a foreign war, but not acceptable if you’re wanting to fight for the state? Interspersed with interviews with VanDyke Point and Shoot is a must see for those interested in the events in Libya and for those interested in the psychology of foreign fighters.

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, an edited version is below.

HRAFF 2014 Film Picks

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, an edited version is below.

HRAFF 2014

HRAFF movie reviews by Sonia Nair, Maya Borom and Sam Ryan.

With the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival just days away, the Right Now review team pick out some of the most intriguing films from the extensive 2014 HRAFF program, which offers the usual feast of informative and inspirational stories.

The Square

During 2011, the call to revolution rang out in Egypt’s renowned Tahrir square. Thousands of people called for an end to over 30 years of emergency laws and demanded the resignation of Mubarak and his regime from power. The protests started out as a peaceful sit-in but turned into one of the bloodiest revolutions in the nation’s history.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square goes behind the scenes of the revolution, from the early stages of planning the occupation of Tahrir square to the 2012 presidential elections won by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, and disaffection with Morsi’s rule in 2013. It becomes clear that there are competing agendas and interests in ensuring the revolution is successful  – graphic footage captures civilians deaths at the hand of military whilst back-door deals between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military seemingly undermine the purpose of the revolution against corruption.

Featuring on-the-ground footage that has rarely been shown on mainstream media (if at all), as well as interviews with key organisers of the Tahrir demonstrations, The Square is an important document of a bloody era of modern Egyptian history. It captures the people’s struggle for democracy against an increasingly difficult political situation and provides insight into the hopes and dreams of millions of Egyptians who supported the revolution – some with their lives.

The Square screens 6.30pm, Thursday 8 May at ACMI. View the trailer:

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

Brian Knappenberger’s investigative documentary The Internet’s Own Boy tells the story of Aaron Swartz, widely known as an American hacktivist and one of the founders of Reddit. Swartz was also at the centre of one of the biggest legal cases in US copyright history and found dead in his apartment after refusing to plead guilty to charges.

Swartz’s interest in systems and open data led him to advocate for open access to information and actions that eventually led to a tug-of-war involving the government and corporate copyright interests.

The documentary features interviews with family, friends and experts that provide insight into Swartz life, from an early age through to the days leading up to his death. It also illustrates the extent to which the United States government and commercial entities will go to protect commercial interests.

The Internet’s Own Boy raises important questions about the right to information – who owns information and who has the right to determine whom can have access to it and when.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz screens 6.15pm, Thursday 15 May. View the trailer:

HRAFF 2014 Gets Running with Deeks

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia

HRAFF 2014

Review by Maya Borom

HRAFF Gala featuring screening of Running to America

Running to America

Last week, the Human Rights and Art Film Festival celebrated the launch of its 2014 program with a fundraising Gala event at a packed St Kilda Town and screening of Robert De Castella’s documentary Running to America.

The Gala is HRAFF’s primary fundraising event of the year, with the proceeds going towards the following year’s acquisitions and day-to-day running of the festival.

Addressing the crowd via a pre-recorded commentary ahead of the film, De Castella introduced the Indigenous Marathon Project, which uses the New York Marathon to improve Indigenous health. He explained the motivations behind his involvement, not just in the project but in creating the documentary, and in personal terms as well as considering the long-term impact that training indigenous runners would have in local communities.

The Indigenous Marathon Project started out aiming to train Indigenous Australians in long-distance running with the end goal of having a competitor in the New York Marathon. It has since grown to include healthy-living advice and mentorship programs run by local squad members in communities as well as industry certification. The initiative has become immensely popular and project ambassadors include Charlie Maher, the first ever indigenous Australian to finish the New York Marathon and one of the subjects in the documentary.

Running to America follows four runners on their journey to compete in the New York Marathon and enter the history books as the first Indigenous Australians to ever compete in the event. De Castella’s carefully organised fitness and training timetables are often frustrated by the constant interruptions of life in the red centre – from rainy season to family issues with alcohol and much else in between.

It’s a hard journey for those hand-picked for the inaugural Indigenous Marathon Project and the grueling training schedule at the Australian Institute of Sport, which continued back at their homes, means the group has to remain regimented in their approach to training. Physical obstacles arise through training, such as wild town dogs following along and trying to bite the runners, impassable roads due to rain, a rolled ankle and a back injury.

As much as the documentary is a statement about the ability of the team to circumnavigate such issues, it also has a message about the ability of the government to provide a safe environment and opportunities for Australian youth, no matter where they may be in Australia. Of course, social and familial pressures also contributed towards difficult training sessions however these were overcome or dealt with in a way which allowed each member of the team to travel to New York to take part in the marathon. De Castella’s commitment to the health and well being of each and every runner in the group is obvious and there is a real sense of achievement in local communities around the project, and this is reflected in the choice of workplace roles that each participant takes up after returning from the United States.

The HRAFF Gala and screening of Running to America was a great way to kick off the coming film festival and provide a local focus to an international theme – human rights film and art.

The Human Rights Arts and Film Festival runs 8-22 May. 

The Love Story of East-Timors Independence

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia

Alias Ruby Blade

Review by Maya Borom

Alias Ruby Blade | Alex Meiller

Alex Meillier’s documentary Alias Ruby Blade is as much a love story about two people – Kirsty Sword and Xanana Gusmao – as it is about their love for Timor-Leste and the country’s struggle for independence in the face of Indonesian occupation and oppression.

Activist, filmmaker and First Lady of Timor-Leste, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, first went to the country in 1990 when it was under Indonesian control and communications in and out of the country was tightly controlled. It was to be a visit that altered the path of not only herself, but arguably that of Timor-Leste itself. Despite the strict conditions prohibiting contact with foreigners, Kirsty was smuggled photographs and letters about the resistance fighters the Falintil (The Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor) and came across images of leader Xanana Gusmao. So began Kirsty’s work to help liberate the country and to make the international community aware of the struggle of the people against Indonesian brutality and torture.

Returning to the country under the guise of setting up adventure tourism ventures, Kirsty and a group of filmmakers including Max Stahl were able to interview key activists and film a peaceful protest calling for independence and showing support for Xanana. Unbeknownst to the Indonesian authorities, Kirsty and her team were able to capture first hand video footage of Indonesian military firing live rounds into the crowd and killing and wounding many. The footage was picked up by the international media who condemned Indonesia’s actions and whom sparked a global interest in this small country struggling quietly for independence.

Interspersed with interviews with Stahl and Kirsty about the shootings, Meillier is able to provide a contrasting viewpoint to the officially sanctioned Indonesian one which was based on an argument of self-defence. The use of footage from within Timor-Leste during this time period thus becomes an invaluable source of evidence for human rights abuse for both the international community but also for the local Timorese in that there is an alternative “truth” to that of the “official” version of events.

The eventual capture of resistance leader Xanana and his subsequent jail sentence did not mean that the resistance to Indonesian rule ceased for each initiative still required approval and sign off by Xanana himself. It was here, as courier, that Kirsty became a crucial player in the struggle for Timor-Leste’s future independence. It was also here, acting in her role as liaison between the outside resistance and Xanana that Kirsty (now operating under the alias of Ruby Blade) developed a deep bond with the leader and it was here that the first whispers of love occurred. Meillier is able to use intimate home video and prison video footage of them both to illustrate the growing relationship between them at a time when it was dangerous to even hint at a liaison.

The documentary Alias Ruby Blade is essential viewing for those interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the major players of the resistance in the lead up to Timor-Leste’s freedom from Indonesian rule. It provides a glimpse behind the public facade of Xanana Gusmao and shines a light on how he rose to Prime Ministerial office. It also tells the story of how one Australian women’s dedication to change and human rights forever altered the history of a country and it’s people.

Copies of Alias Ruby Blade are available to purchase for personal or community/fund raising screenings at http://www.sunjivereleasing.com, or by emailing vasili@sunjive.com.  

On Facebook…for study

This article appears here

On Facebook…for study

Though often viewed as a platform for sending memes, joking with friends and organising events, social media can be used as an effective teaching tool and to increase student participation outside of the confines of the traditional classroom.

Staff at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) use Facebook and Twitter to engage with students who are enrolled in their ‘inclusion’ degrees, which focus on special education, autism, early intervention, language, hearing impairment and inclusion.

Special Education, Inclusion and Early Intervention lecturer Guy Logan says their Facebook page was created in 2011 in response to the number of students using the platform for social networking.

“MGSE Staff now regularly provide links to articles or content that relates to teaching students with disabilities,” he says.

“Student users in turn contribute content to share with fellow students.”

The page also offers ideas on how to engage students with disabilities and actively encourages student feedback.

Recent posts to the MGSE_Inclusion Facebook page include links to a story about a second grade student creating a ‘buddy bench’ for children to sit on if they are feeling left out or lonely, pictorial charts on building language, and visual transition cues.

It also has posts to relevant jobs which encourages current students to think about their transition from a student to a working professional.

Staff are also engaging with their students and Twitter. The @MGSE_Inclusion Twitter account is used by staff to tweet out links to relevant stories, and is also being embraced by students who are increasingly live tweeting comments and questions during lectures.

Mr Logan says that students will often pose questions, make observations of key points or even add links that they think contribute to their peers’ understanding of the topic at hand.

“The class of 2013 even enjoyed a live tweet-up of their graduating ceremony proving just how embedded social media platforms can be in a good way!” he says.

Mr Logan says social media shouldn’t just be viewed as a way of communicating to current students.

It also helps staff stay in contact with Alumni, many of whom actively participate in the conversation with current students and staff by alerting them to current job opportunities, sharing practical ideas from their first-hand experience and by posting updates about their professional working life.

As the Inclusion cohorts grow, so too will the ability of staff and students to interact on social media as they’ll be able to contribute to the content with their learned experiences and also encourage and engage the newest members of their school community.


MGSE Twitter can be found via @MGSE_Inclusion

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/voice/on-facebookfor-study-20140304-341gv.html#ixzz3GBBiWrRx

Bunjilaka Review

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, an edited version is below.

Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre

By Maya Borom

The Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre is living cultural space within the Melbourne Museum that allows visitors a glimpse of the wondrous cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians. As the only living Aboriginal cultural centre in Australia, it provides an important educational and hands-on experience for those wanting to learn more about Indigenous culture.

One of the highlights of the cultural centre is the First Peoples exhibit. With the decline in usage of Aboriginal languages, coupled with the fact that everyday access to Indigenous languages is limited, the exhibition engages and teaches visitors about Indigenous languages in the hope of ensuring their survival.

A collaboration between the Melbourne Museum, Koori and Indigenous community groups, a key driving factor has been the participation of the Yylendj Group of Elders, a community reference group tasked with sharing their collective knowledge with visitors to the centre.

The welcome area, referred to as ‘Wominjeka’, offers tactile experiences through active listening and touching, allowing visitors to hear firsthand ancient languages and thus be exposed to a linguistic heritage outside of the common (predominately English language) experience in urban Australian landscapes. Visitors are immediately immersed in the rich cultural heritage of indigenous languages – a unique experience for most visitors to the centre.  This is not just an auditory experience: visitors are also encouraged to actively engage with parts of the exhibition and become familiar with commonly used tools and artifacts. These experiences are further supplemented by digital media explanations of what they do or were used for.

The centre also provides a space for temporary exhibitions. The Naghlingah Boorais: Beautiful Children exhibit features the Yorta Yorta cloak (1800s), which is one of only two possum cloaks that the Museum has in their collection. As possum skin coats were traditionally used by the Koorie people as signifiers to identity and status,  the centre initiated workshops with indigenous children in order to re-connect them with their cultural and spiritual heritage. The result is a display of photography, artwork and the creation of possum cloaks much like their ancestors have done for over 2,000 years. You’ll need to hurry, as this temporary exhibition is due to close on the 24th of February and is well worth seeing.

The Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre also houses the Birrarung Gallery which collaborates with community groups to host three exhibitions per year as well as the Milarri Garden which offers visitors the chance to explore Indigenous flora and their myriad uses. It’s a wonderful multi-faceted space which allows visitors to explore the relationship that Indigenous culture has with the land, and it’s flora and fauna and ties the centre’s experiences together nicely. The Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre is a must see for visitors to the Melbourne Museum as if offers a cultural experience unlike any other in Australia.

Find out more about Bunjilaka on the Melbourne Museum website.