It all began on a winter night, snuggling near the heaters with a hot chocolate in one hand and the remote control in another. It was the perfect winter night – or at least that’s what I thought. I switched the channel to the world news, and suddenly, in bold letters on the screen read: ‘Islamic Extremism’ and ‘Terrorist’. I felt my heart drop, getting heavier the longer I looked at the screen. It was painful to see how my religion was being portrayed in the media – as everybody’s nightmare. Why was my religion being judged by the actions of the very small few?
With a heavy heart, I struggled to understand why only a very specific few Muslims were broadcasted in the media. Why wasn’t there anything on the positive contributions of Muslims to the general community? Shouldn’t the good always outweigh the bad? I began searching for answers, even asking my colleagues’ opinions to find what I needed. It only took a few weeks until it slowly hit me: the reason why we only see a very small population of Muslims – the extreme – so frequently appearing in the media is because there aren’t enough Muslim leaders who represent the true teachings of Islam making appearances. If it was difficult for me, a Muslim woman, to find a Muslim leader in my community, imagine how difficult it would be for a non-Muslim.
This heavy heart led me to take it upon myself to become a representative of the Muslim community. I was not going to let my religion become politicised and the subject to political debate; I was not going to let the actions of 3% of the Muslim population change the world’s perception on the remaining 97% of us; I wanted to be a living example of a good Muslim, not a media stereotype.
It was a long journey, but I was determined. I began by building my leadership skills through my last years of high school. I became a prefect. I volunteered to coordinate international fundraisers, and became a public speaker, raising awareness on humanitarian crises.
Straight out of high school and in my first year of university, I became the Education and Public Affairs Officer of the Student Union. For the first time, I felt like my voice was valued. At the same time, I was elected as an Academic Board Member – a position where I sit alongside the Vice-Chancellor and numerous academic staff to discuss issues affecting academic excellence. I later became involved in the Moreland City Council by joining the Oxygen Youth Committee, where I provide advice and recommendations to Moreland City Council on issues that affect young people in Moreland. I was one of the twenty-five Muslim Youth Leaders chosen by the Islamic Council of Victoria, and I’m only just beginning.
This is me: still growing from that little girl who watched the news degrade her religion to this woman of power who is fighting those exact stereotypes with every step she takes.
In a matter of a few years, I became the Muslim leader that I was ever so keen on finding.
Words by Tharaa El-Achkar