Muslims Down Under had the privilege to speak with Maha Abdo OAM, who is the CEO of Muslim Women Australia and is a passionate advocate for social justice, and uses the common language of faith to share her knowledge regarding justice and equality within communities. In her role as CEO of Muslim Women Australia, she is a passionate advocate for leadership and paves the way for Muslim women to enrich humanity and advocate for equality and the rights of all women based on Islamic principles. In addition, she also advises the government on policy services and strategies to create a harmonious community, not only for Muslims but also for non-Muslims. Among her many accomplishments over the years, she has been the recipient of the Order of Australia medal, the NSW Premier’s Multicultural Medal, and a finalist for the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Medal.
This is an abridged transcript from portions of this podcast.
Click below to listen to the full interview.
Bushra – Welcome back to another episode of the Muslims Down Under podcast. On our podcast, we discuss topics related to social justice in an effort to understand and improve and build our knowledge around societal issues that impact us all. Today, we have the wonderful opportunity to speak with a very special guest, Maha Abdo.
So Assalamo Alaikum, peace be upon you, and welcome to our podcast.
Maha: Walaikum-salam! (peace be upon you).
Bushra: Thank you Maha so much for joining us today. I do appreciate you giving us the time from your busy schedule. First of all, I did notice across your social media pages for Muslim Women Australia that you just recently celebrated 40 years of establishment. So congratulations, that’s such an extraordinary achievement.
Maha: Thank you. The team just launched the journey for 40 years, this year celebrating at every point that they can with different cohorts of people that they cared for, and the first one was with the service users and clients, that access the services in the organisation, which is a very multicultural group of service providers and women and children and men using the service.
Bushra: That’s wonderful and it truly demonstrates the grass-roots and community involvement of MWA. So, I’d like to start by talking more about Muslim Women Australia. How was MWA established and what was the reason behind setting up such a dynamic organisation for Muslim women in Australia?
Maha: SubhanAllah (Glory be to God), when this organisation was established, it was established by a group of women just to sort of talk about their settlement journey in Australia in the early 80s. Because in those days it was just transitioning from the White Australia policy into a multicultural policy, and you had, not have a big number of Muslims in Australia, but women were always in the background and there were issues relating to themselves, their English proficiency, English language as a second language, education of their children, employment. So, all of these things, but what brought them all together for the first year was really their commonality in the common ground of that they’re women from an Islamic background and they had the Quran and the Sunnah as one goal, where they came together to really, just learn, teach each other Quran, and then it grew from that, in finding out that there are other social issues and concerns that each one had in the first year. And then when I joined in as a social worker, a young woman who just wanted to do some learning for me for my own Islamic learning journey.
The organisation then started really noticing the needs, the dire need for Muslim women to come together, so it was very humble, it still is a humble organisation. And it was established as a non-sectarian organisation, non-ethnic organisation, and for all women of all backgrounds. But, it started off for Muslim women in Australia, and it had Turkish women, Arab women from all backgrounds, and South Asian women – and that was a new thing because people come together in their own ethnic groups, but for women, we came together on the basis of just being together as Muslim women.
Bushra: And that’s so important just having that space and opportunity for growth as Muslim women as well and you know, my Caliph, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who is the current Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, he often talks about women realising their potential and power as Muslim women. And he talks about how women can do so much when they’re not working under the shadow of men and they can do so much better in spaces just like this that you’ve provided for them. So that’s wonderful to hear.
So, this organisation as you’ve just briefly shared, it does so many grassroots campaigns, advocacy work and also community development services and educational programs as well. Can you share some insight into this work for our listeners? What kind of work is being done and how do you and MWA go about doing all this work?
Maha: Sure. I think since its inception, Muslim Women Australia started off as Muslim Women Association, in Arabic it was called and still is Rabitatal-Al-mar-a-Muslima. What binds us all together, what really brings us all together as Muslim women.
And the services, it began as I said to you earlier with settlement services and then increased to young women’s services, youth services, youth camps, youth activities – because you know we’re a young community and from listening to what was happening at that grassroots level, we realised there were issues to do with the conflict in marriage, generational conflict, and there were elderly, aged care needs. So, as the needs were evolving, as the community was evolving and growing and expanding, the needs we felt at MWA expanded as well, but the way we expanded it was not just well, we need to do this and we need to do that. It was really to meet the needs of Muslim women and their families.
And up until 1992, we were doing a lot of settlement services and youth programs, but in 1992 we had our first National Muslim Women Conference in Australia, here in Sydney, in Chullora. And we had two days of the conference talking about social issues, from sports and recreation to health and well-being, mental health to youth issues, foster care programs, children, and child abuse. You know things that were really, now when I think back, were so much, mashAllah (God has willed), ahead of our time, but needed at that time because that influenced so much of the policies, of the social policies around Australia.
And that supported a lot of women around Australia to start establishing, and thinking creatively about establishing their own women’s organisations and that’s how many Muslim women’s organisations around Australia were established. And the services in New South Wales that we really came out because they were very much about, as in that time mainstream feminist movements we’re talking about domestic violence in this space. And it was a really dire issue because it was always a private issue. No one talked about it; it’s none of your business. In Islam, it’s very clear about what domestic violence is, and it’s very clear about how to deal with it, the mediation, arbitration, and all of those in conflict. So, not that we knew much in those days. We learned as we were growing. So, when we saw that there was a need for our own specialist services in dealing with women, children, and men, in preventative measures utilising Islamic principles, as well as in early intervention, as well as for those in crisis, because we had settlement issues, so we set up the first Muslim women’s support centre, so that was back in 1988. And it was government funded and we were funded to provide services for Muslim women and their families, dealing with family violence and conflict, inclusive of children.
And with that, our continuous efforts were to really make sure that men are included in this space because Islamically, it’s about, really men and women complimenting each other, so really that drove a lot of our campaign. Domestic violence is not a woman’s responsibility alone. She’s a victim. And then she gets re-victimised by plucking her out of her family home.
So we continuously we’re dealing with a lot of those issues relating to family violence and we set up that service and mashAllah, it grew from being a Muslim women-only service and family, to now a multicultural service that we now call Linking Hearts. And, Linking Hearts, is beyond the language, beyond the ethnicity, but it really has in it as a foundation, as a tool for empowerment. So, it doesn’t matter what faith you belong to, whether you have faith you have no faith, we utilise faith to bring families together and deal with the issues, not with the symptoms. So, if there’s violence, what do we do? When it’s safe, we use the case management approach, and we do all of that. We can talk about it another time, but it’s really an amazing model that we use in Linking Hearts. That’s one arm of MWA, and that’s very strong.
We are an advocate around Australia for supporting, and well on making sure that we’re included around the table when we’re discussing women in general women, women of CALD background, and specifically Muslim women. Because the voices of women need to be heard, but it’s inclusive of children, inclusive of men as well. That’s one. And then we have the youth activities including young women and they are doing some really amazing programs with youth. We have tutoring programs that now have been developed over the years from just being a tutoring program, to now one on one with children whose mothers are accessing the services and children are utilising this service where we’ve got our own teams really just dealing with very, very dire issues of literacy in that space where the children are falling through the cracks of the education system.
Bushra: So, this is such important work and just I guess building on that point of empowering people based on faith and using these Islamic principles which provide that framework for all of these programs that your organisation is conducting, it’s so amazing to see this put into practice across Australia, and how it’s impacting not just Muslim women and Muslim families, but non-Muslim families across Australia as well.
And I think to know that there is so much wisdom and rights for both men and women that they’ve been afforded by Islam; we shouldn’t be deterred by what we see in the media or various movements that come about in the name of freedom and liberation – there so much happening in this space which is purely based on misinformation, but knowing that far as rights are concerned, Islam and all faiths, I believe, they do give us these principles and aspects of social justice with which we can basically do so much with people across our communities to go about doing all these services to humanity.
So, on a practical level, how has the work of MWA impacted Muslim women across Australia? I understand there are very delicate and often complex and difficult situations that you would be dealing with in the day-to-day running of these programs that MWA runs. But can you share some positive experiences, those stories which I believe, and hearing about these things really makes it all worthwhile, so I’d love to hear about them.
Maha: It’s funny because we are not a group of women who boast about the good things that we’ve been able to achieve. And all of this is so important, but I think before we really talk about the achievements, it’s very important to see that this journey has been a very painful one.
And very much a journey that’s been walked with so many women, Muslim women and non-Muslim women as alliances of Muslim women. It is so important to realise that and along the way you build amazing, sincere friendships and akhoowa (sisterhood) because over the years, with the Gulf crisis and the Bosnian War, and then you had, the children overboard stuff, if you remember over the many years, and then you’ve had the 9/11, you’ve had the Bali bombings. Oh, my goodness! All these things that we did and went through, they’re very traumatising. And then when we talk about the framework that we work with, I think a positive thing is that we’ve developed our healing framework from an Islamic principle to deal with. And, we had COVID on top of all of this, locked up in Western Sydney.
But I think where we see there’s hope, in our Iman, in our faith, in knowing that we have full reliance on Al-kalima-tauheed (pillar of Islam accepting the oneness of Allah or God). And that’s a positive thing for me. But in the outcome, you see some of the things that have been shifting.
You know when we talk about the language of the heart and it’s not just about talking, it’s about really sincerely reaching out to people of all backgrounds. Not specifically Muslim women. But achievements for, and outcomes for Muslim women around Australia are now that the voices of Muslim women are no longer one tone, one word. It’s an inclusive way where women who have diverse backgrounds in the Muslim community are now able to have their input and be heard.
But the fact that MWA was a Muslim Women Association in those days and we launched Muslim Women in Australia, that’s a big achievement for all Muslim Women around Australia and it was launched at a time just when COVID hit, right. And all of a sudden we had to cancel everything. We could not do the launch in Canberra because of all the restrictions. But that did not deter us, we’re very resilient women and I think our resilience comes from our faith. You know, that we don’t give up, but at the same time, we give ourselves time to ponder and reflect, but with purpose, with Allah Subhanallah-talla (May God be praised and exalted).
So, again, some of the positive things are that when we look at the legislation in NSW about the face covering, you know we were part of really putting together that legislation which took place, but we were able to be part of designing and putting that together, what it means for women who cover their faces, how do you identify your face and we put all the recommendations of what to do, keeping intact Muslim women’s privacy and safety. And that is achieving 40 years for Muslim Women Australia, that’s an achievement in itself, and our succession planning that we’ve been doing for 10 years.
For me, as you know, I started off as a volunteer, as a mother of toddlers and young children. Now, I have grandchildren. I think that’s an achievement in itself, that you ride the wave, actually it’s not a wave. I think you just walk the path, that has so many obstacles and then you overcome them. That’s positive. You know, we overcome them with commitment and humility. That in itself is an achievement.
And now, seeing now that mashaAllah (God has willed), this organisation is led by young women who have been part of the succession planning, that come with different experiences. They come with their own unique attributes that they can then really contribute to society. That in itself, is an amazing achievement. And then seeing now for me as an elder, now you see Muslim women on different levels of management and leadership.
And Alhamdulillah (All praise belongs to Allah or God), I say if it was tough in those days, we’ve paved the way for more Muslim women to really walk the path without having to jump all those hurdles that we did. That is an achievement in itself. More Muslim women accessing education, and more young men are able to understand their own position in Islam, complementing the role of women. You know that’s an achievement. So I see our positive achievements as Australian Muslims as being inclusive, being creative and not being afraid, and not having to justify our own existence anymore. But really, walking the path together with our uniqueness. SubhanAllah, it’s just amazing, mashAllah, yeah.
Bushra: Yes, absolutely. And it’s so amazing to see the wonderful work that you’re doing, and you’re seeing all these women excelling in so many fields of life and contributing in so many ways to Australian society. You kn
So, my next question was going to be how does MWA empower women, Muslim women in particular, to promote the role, and the value and scope of women in society, especially because there are so many misconceptions these days, unfortunately still around about Muslim women and the teachings of Islam regarding women in society. You have kind of addressed this question, but if you’ve got anything more to add I’d love to hear about it.
Maha: Look, I think it’s very important when we’re really we’re engaging with Muslim women. You can pass the message but not in the same way when we’re engaging with women of other faiths or non-Muslim women, because when you’re a Muslim woman, you’ve got to start with the kalima with the tauheed, understanding the meaning of the love of Allah subhana-wa ta-allah, the meaning of who Rasullullah alaihi sallato wassalam is. So, having that as the foundation gives you permission to really excel in what Allah ordains for us. What has been ordained for us as Muslim women is not the same as other women. For us, hijab is part of our Islamic tradition and is an obligation for Muslim women. I can’t go and talk about hijab to non-Muslim women in the same way I talk about it to Muslim women and that doesn’t mean that I am a hypocrite. Rather it really creates a space to say, we are now engaging from a source. You know, if you believe in the Quran and the Sunnah, that’s the difference. We walk the path together with the chain going back to Rasullullah alaihi sallato wassalam. And that is a gift in itself that we pass on to other Muslim women who choose to come and be part of that journey. Part of that connecting of the chain of the auliah, going back to Rasullullah alaihi sallato wassalam. And I think that’s the exciting bit for Muslim women.
And then, we don’t have to debate the meaning of feminism because feminism is a feminist attribute to feminism in the West. in the past I say, well, I’m just as feminist, if not more as you are. But really, I don’t want to do that anymore and I’d like to pass that information to other young Muslim women and all Muslim women, is that you are a Muslim woman first, with the kalima (pillar) of La Illaha Ill-Allah, Muhammad-ur-Rasul-Allah (There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad peace be upon him is the messenger of Allah). That’s what drives us. But, there is so much responsibility in that. Engaging with the rest of humankind with kindness, with compassion, with tranquilly, with peace, with contentment, that is sincerity, that is emanating from our heart with the light of Allah subhana-wa ta-allah, and that can only come if you are really practicing your Islamic tradition, and you are connecting and that’s and I think it’s no secret, right?
It’s there, but unless we start building that foundation, that strong foundation for Muslim women with Muslim women, so that they understand that when a Muslim woman decides to take her hijab off, we don’t go out there and jump on her. We give her time, but within her own right, right? And we continue to be the best of friends with a sincere heart. So we don’t, you know, choose how to be with other Muslim women according to what we want her to be. So, as a Muslim woman, you come the way you are. That’s the message we have in the organisation. You come in the way you are, you choose, we give you the smorgasbord of being a Muslim woman, there are principles, there are clear foundations in our in aqeeda, which is very clear. But that is not to be enforced upon you, because when you come in with that sincere love of Allah subhana-wa ta-allah, you want to know more! But when you are forced to do something you just don’t want to do it. And you want to be a Muslimah with the love of Allah, not with the fear of Allah. And I think that’s the foundation of this organisation that we’ve been building and we continue to pass on Insha’Allah.
Bushra: Yeah, we recently did a podcast on feminism on International Womens Day and we discuss whether feminist movements over the years are really empowering women or not, or are they just in reality actually erasing women – erasing them from that fundamental understanding of what a woman is, and so your take on that, about who a Muslim woman is, you’ve beautifully explained that. And you said, the practical examples of how to honour and respect women, they’re set perfectly by the Holy Prophet peace be upon him, and through the principles that Islam gives us.
And then, I believe, in this day and age, the Promised Messiah, His Holiness Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad peace be upon him, explained these teachings found in the Holy Quran, and showed us how women should be honoured and respected and these teachings demonstrate how to live a life of a true Muslim, of a true Muslim woman, which has not been done by any other religion or faith. And these Islamic principles they’re all present, and they’re a guide for us, they teach us how to respect each other, irrespective of the life choices we make. As long as we’re educating and raising awareness of what choice we have, what is right from wrong, then you know we have absolutely no reason to judge others. And that’s I guess how we come about, you know, things like social justice, establishing justice within society.
So, did you have anything else to add to today’s conversation, is there anything else you’d like to share?
Maha: I’ve just come back from my own spiritual quest. I’ve been to I just went to Medina. Makkah, I did my Umrah. Then I went to Jerusalem. I went to the land of prophets. and just being there, seeing how the traditions that all the faiths and religions emanated from there.
I was there, it is just amazing just to be in that space. It is so refreshing, so like I can’t describe it in words. It just makes your heart melt when you’re there. And I was there at Christmas. So this is where all our Christian brothers and sisters were doing their pilgrimage at Christmas time. And it was just so beautiful, it’s such a mosaic of religions, of faith. And we need to, as clearly as what you said earlier, we need to be very, very much at the forefront of creating that safe space to bring faith into what we do. Because faith is in our hearts. Faith is the backbone of what we do and you could see that clearly in Jerusalem and driving of course driving and going around and then visiting different sites in Jordan, in Egypt, and then I ended up my journey in Yemen, in Tarin, in Hadramout, where I sat with under the fear of my Muslim women scholars who go back to the silalalla (generations) of Rasullullah alaihi sallato wassalam (Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
And just sitting there and seeing the likeness of our faith, I feel like I have a responsibility to bring it back here. How do we bring it back? Because fa-qad al-shay la-yaatiy – ‘when you don’t have, you can’t give’. So, I feel like we need to continuously, do the at-takhalli (to remove negative characteristics) and the at-tahalli (to adorn characteristics of a good Muslim), you know, in our tradition, we have to deplete, delete before we can actually refuel. So, I feel like it’s so important to highlight here that all our hearts are saying, we all have a spiritual heart, we all have souls. We all become from a mother’s womb. And a mother’s womb, as we were talking about earlier at International Women’s Day is Ar-Raham. Ar-Raham is Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim comes from the compassion, the mercy.
So, we as women, I think we have an obligation to have that another within ourselves. But it has to start within our own selves to be very self-aware, to take care of ourselves, and reengage and reconnect with our Creator. But, with that sincerity, and continuously understand what our sincere intentions are, because it actually creates those waves in our thoughts. So, with sincere intentions in our hearts, we allow our thoughts to be again the most healthiest thoughts and for our actions to be inshAllah, the best that we can do.
And that reminds me as we want to end here, is the verse from Surah Al-Hujurat.
When Allah subhana-wa ta-allah speaks to humankind in Arabic: O mankind, We have created you from a male and a female; and We have made you into tribes and sub-tribes that you may recognize one another. Verily, the most honourable among you, in the sight of Allah, is he who is the most righteous among you.
So InshaAllah, we can take that, and if anything that we want to take from here – is our purpose.
Our purpose in life, focusing on our Ibadah, because our worship is not just on our prayer mat. Everything we do, everything we say, is part of our worship, with Allah subhana-wa ta-allah. And remember, this could be the last moment in this world. How do I want to leave this world? It’s not about leaving the legacy behind. It’s leaving a word that entered someone’s heart that will shift they’re being into a better space and into a better state.
Bushra: InshaAllah, I think that you’ve just perfectly rounded up this episode and I do appreciate your time. And thank you so much, Maha, for joining us on our podcast. It’s been such a pleasure having this conversation with you and I really do hope this serves as an opportunity for anyone listening to know a bit more about the wonderful work that Muslims, especially Muslim women like yourself are doing across Australia, and to better understand why faith is so important, even in this day and age, and how faith can play such an empowering, important role to guide us, to uplift us from societal issues and provide us with those principles and practices that can help create a more just, more peaceful society inshaAllah.
Maha: InshAllah, JazakAllah Khairan