By CAM LUCADOU-WELLS
GREATER Dandenong mayor Sean O’Reilly has been accused by fellow councillors of “naively” endorsing the hijab on their behalf.
The mayor had described the council as “fully supportive” of a public activity that encouraged non-Muslim women to try wearing a hijab for up to three hours on 10 April.
“At the City of Dandenong we’re fully supportive of these sort of things that promote social and cultural awareness,” Cr O’Reilly said at the event.
The “social experiment” was conceived by two Minaret College students and to run as part of a documentary on the council’s “Youth Channel”.
It was part of a free youth event that included break-dancing, soccer and basketball.
In a statement on his Facebook page the following day, Cr O’Reilly said he was encouraged by the “positive” participation.
“The more we learn about each other’s differences and shared experience, the better.”
After fierce criticism from some councillors, commentators and the public, Cr O’Reilly issued a less-emphatic statement at a council meeting last Monday.
He said the council was “well served” by assisting young people “explore ideas, express themselves, and grow in confidence and skills”.
“Council is not oblivious to views in the community and will consider community feedback in the
design and implementation of future programs.”
Cr Maria Sampey said the mayor was “backtracking” from his original “naive” response.
“If you’re going to side with one group, why not get people wear the cross for a few hours?”
“We have a lot of Indian people who wear turbans.”
“There’s a lot of women who wear it in Dandenong because they can’t go against their husband. They wish the government would ban it.”
Cr Peter Brown supported the students’ right to run the project but not the council’s role in promoting “awareness about religious culture”.
He said the hijab was “a symbol of domination of women by men and persecution of women in other countries”.
In an email to the mayor after the event, Cr Brown said: “What the mayor and our staff behind this religious promotion fail to realise is the symbolic nature of both the hijab and burqa and the entrenched opposition to Christianity and Judaism that is being preached in countries in which failure to wear the headwear is unlawful and punishable by social and criminal sanctions.
“We are a laughing stock the world over now and I resent being alluded to as being in agreement with and endorsing what has led to this global view.”
Cr Matthew Kirwan commended the mayor’s “principled stand” and council officers for not being “risk adverse” to the project.
“It wasn’t promoting hijabs or Islam. It was increasing understanding about what it was like to wear a hijab.
“It may have been seen as controversial by some members of the community but supporting young people to encourage greater cultural understanding in the community is very important.”
South Eastern Metropolitan Greens MP Nina Springle last week told Parliament that recent Reclaim Australia rallies were a “sad reminder that racism and fear of difference” still exists; the Muslim community still the popular target for racial vilification.
In praising Cr O’Reilly and the council’s stand, she said: “It is incumbent on all politicians and public figures to try to protect communities from vilification and isolation and to help redress the misplaced fear that some people hold towards other cultures and religions.”