What can you do to change the minds and sway the hearts of people living in a town with a reputation – true or not – for supporting anti-Islam politics? According to a metropolitan Melbourne restaurateur and human-rights activist, you pack 77 Muslim women on a bus, send them to the location in question, and ask the locals out on a date. The non-romantic meet-up that results is ‘Speed Date A Muslim’ and it just occurred in Shepparton, Victoria, a town located in the federal seat of Murray belonging to Pauline Hanson's One Nation party. Since inception, these dating events have been a wild success, with requests flowing in to Assafiri from around Australia - and abroad - requesting she bring the speed dating team to their region. Born in Australia but raised in Morocco and Lebanon, Assafiri adopted the ‘speed dating’ format to provide a safe and respectful space for local non-Muslim to meet and ask Muslims all the curly questions they were otherwise too shy to. The overall aim is to provide people who want to explore, challenge or better understand their racial and religious perceptions with an opportunity to do just that. But it was the small town of Shepparton that was to be Hana’s first stop beyond Melbourne. Assafiri tells SBS that she has local mum and member of the Shepparton Ethnic Council, Betul Tuna, to thank for the invitation.
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“Betul attended a speed dating event in Brunswick, and stood up halfway through, ” remembers Assafiri. Put your money where your mouth is, and come run this event up there. 'Shepparton locals partake in a spot of speed-dating a Muslim to deepen their understanding of the faith. (Carlo Zeccola)Shepparton is a town that’s living out the age-old tale of two cities: on one hand, it has acquired the reputation as a One Nation stronghold, but on the other, is a largely multicultural region with a strong Muslim community.
Over the past year, Shepparton has found itself in the spotlight as the unsuspecting face of Australian-Islamic tensions. In another more serious incident, a local Muslim doctor was attacked in front of her husband for no reason other than wearing the hijab. ‘‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I hate it, ’’ the victim was to say at the time. ‘‘But if we go back to the Middle East, I’m a doctor, he’s an engineer — we’re dead, we’re targets — where else do we go? ”The overall aim is to provide people who want to explore, challenge or better understand their racial and religious perceptions with an opportunity to do just that.
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Despite these events, people in the town are making genuine efforts to promote racial inclusion. According to the region’s, the Muslim community of Shepparton is just shy of 8,555 people. The town is known for its vibrant multicultural community, with 75 per cent of its population made up of immigrants. Greater Shepparton City Council is a major partner with the Human Rights Commission ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ campaign.
But, given the post-truth world in which we live - where anti-Islamic sentiment is becoming increasingly prevalent in mainstream media - Assafiri felt it was time to get her dating event on the road. And so last week, Speed Date A Muslim was held in Shepparton. Assafiri and Tuna tell SBS they were understandably anxious on the day as they waited for guests to arrive. Tuna had been battling a swarm of aggressive Facebook trolls in the weeks leading up for the event, while Hana was unsure what to expect outside of her stomping ground in Melbourne’s Brunswick. “I was just hoping people will be respectful and interested, ” says Tuna.
But as the people of Shepparton began to file into the event, it became clear that this dating night was to be peaceful. Those attending, it appeared, had come to learn about Islam and Muslim 'others', with a proverbial olive branch in hand. “Hopefully, we can all walk away a little more informed, ” says Assafiri as she welcomed the group on Sunday, “and as a community, a little more solid. ”SBS was at the event, along with 55 others in attendance. Under colourful umbrellas on local bar The Deck, Hana’s cheery crew of Melbourne Muslims fanned out among the crowd, each woman pairing off with a handful of Shepparton locals.
Of note was the heartwarming scene of interfaith couples pairing off - an older Shepparton woman in a floral frock and neatly applied makeup sitting happily by a woman dressed in the full niqab, chatting about the heat. There were mothers and daughters, young couples, teachers, and even members of the local Indigenous community.