68. AWAG – African Women’s Action Group

2 Aug

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As I sat down on a comfortable cushion and sip my deliciously spicy traditional Somali tea, I found myself surrounded by the warm smiles of the young women of the African Women’s Action Group (AWAG). They had a stall at the 2016 Banyule Youth Fest. It was decked in colour, overflowing with artwork depicting the henna tattoos they were creating for visitors. Tea and biscuits were in abundance and their good cheer was infectious.

Omayma, who has been a member of the group since its beginnings when she initially “fell in love with it”, told me that the group was formed as a way for young Somali Australian women living in Banyule, to come together and help enhance their sense of community and inclusion.

In today’s world, many women who wear the hijab face discrimination and persecution. This forms part of the reason why the young women of AWAG are eager to share stories at the festival about the positive work of their group, to counter such negative stereotypes.

When asked whether her hijab has resulted in negative judgments from other people, Omayma said, “Personally, I have not experienced discrimination. But I know other girls have, yes. I remember hearing a story about a friend who had been asked why do you wear a tea-towel over your head? I was shocked.”

As explanation for these comments, Omayma emphasised how spreading awareness is vital.

“A lot of people just don’t know what it means to wear hijab. It’s all about how people grow up.”

“We are spreading the word about what it means to be African. The group is really peaceful and we hope to share the message that it’s important not to categorise us with a small minority.”

Omayma also said “Some of the really positive things we’ve been doing include basketball tournaments, henna workshops. We think fitness is really important. For us, we do cover up… but we still want to be active and to take care of ourselves.”

Last year, AWAG organised an African Basketball Tournament, as well as working on making a gymnasium accessible for African women.

***

Aisha is a youth worker who is a part of AWAG. I get a chance to chat to her at a later time and even away from the vibrant atmosphere of the Youth Fest stall, Aisha visibly lights up as she talks about the work she does with AWAG. Just like Omayma, Aisha is proud of how AWAG is making sporting and fitness facilities available for girls and women.

Aisha became a youth worker because, she says, “I had grown up as a young Muslim woman in Australia myself and I guess I could have done with a role model or someone who had that experience, to help me out in my youth”.

“AWAG came about because there were a lot of Somali women in the Banyule community, but there wasn’t really a voice … or really anything happening for the Somali girls. There are a lot of recreational opportunities for the young Somali boys… but there haven’t been those opportunities offered to girls,” Aisha says.

“There are girls sports teams they can join, but nothing that would accommodate their faith as well, spaces where they could go and be comfortable to take off their hijab.

“[It’s important] to give them those opportunities to have those recreational activities where they feel comfortable. That is what we’ve been doing,” says Aisha.

Aisha has fond memories of helping to organise a weekly basketball event at an indoor court.

“Everyone would chip in what they could to hire out a court, and we would then just get plastic sheets and cover up the windows!” Aisha says, with a laugh as she remembers these makeshift facilities. “So then everyone was comfortable to take off their hijabs and really get into it.”

“Organising small things like that gave me the energy to want to… do it on a bigger scale, where it becomes normal and we don’t have to put up plastic sheets on the windows and it’s a normal thing for Muslim women to want to hire out a court and have those facilities available to them.”

Aisha said they are starting to see this happen now, with connections to the local leisure centre enabling women’s-only gym sessions on Sundays.

“It’s been received really well by young and older women! It was funded for a couple of hours a week at first, as a trial and it’s been really successful. They’ve had the gym packed out. They haven’t seen it like that in years.

“The numbers were kind of crazy – it was like sixty odd women in the gym in the first few weeks! Now, it’s not as much but it’s still a really good amount every week. That showed everyone that there is a demand and a need in the community,” says Aisha.

“We have other long-term plans like that, for accommodating Muslim women in these spaces.”

According to Aisha, “the Banyule Council has been really accepting of that and wanting to do as much as they can to accommodate the needs of the Somali community. They are respectful of the culture as it is, as well. [There is an understanding that] the needs are different for the boys and the girls, which has been really good.”

Aisha reflects on the upbeat and inclusive vibe of Youth Fest, saying that AWAG’s participation in the event was simply “the best”.

“It was nice to just be there with all the girls. There were a lot of people who … did not expect the Somali community to be at Youth Fest.  To have that [positive] response there and get in really cool conversations with people and sort of break [down] barriers, even in a really small way, was really good,” says Aisha.

“It felt like the start of something that maybe hasn’t happened before in this area. Most people were just really accepting and loved seeing the diversity that was there at Youth Fest.”

In the future, Aisha wants to continue working with young people and, in particular, young girls. She hopes to encourage them to pursue their dreams, no matter their religion or background.

“I want to inspire young girls to be able to go as far as they want in any career, to be proud and accept themselves for who they are, to be proud of their religion, their culture and their heritage and to not feel like it will stop them from getting anywhere or [making] the life choices they want to make,” Aisha says.

AWAG is certainly an avenue for making this a reality, with leadership training opportunities for its members.

“We do some leadership work with the young girls too, trying to inspire them and connect them to women who have gone through what they are going through and who have achieved lots [whether it be] at uni, or after they’ve graduated and are working,” says Aisha.

“The idea of AWAG is for the girls in AWAG to advocate for the rest of the young women in the broader Somali community. They themselves may go on to inspire younger girls.”

The young women of AWAG are impressive in their ability to handle whatever life throws their way and are spreading a message of empowerment. According to Omayma, one tricky issue can be dual nationality.

“Culture is a really important thing for me – but sometimes it’s confusing being raised in a Western culture… I stay true to myself. Just be who you are and I think it’s ok to take what you want from your culture as well as the society you live in.”

“To any girl who is afraid of wearing the hijab, go out and do it if you want. Be strong. Stand up for your beliefs.”

Words: Annabelle Pendlebury

Photo: Jason Rohmursanto

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