You can only be strengthened by what you believe in, and this is where the Muslim faith can play its part in empowering women to create a safer world for women and children.
Maha Abdo works in Sydney’s southwest as the head of the Muslim Women Association (MWA). Established in 1983, MWA is a community-based organisation that caters to the educational, religious, social, recreational and welfare needs of Muslim women from all backgrounds. Since 1988 MWA has been operating the Muslim Women Support Centre (MWSC) to provide support services to Muslim women and their families who experience domestic and family violence. This is a refuge for women and children facing immediate danger and it also offers counselling, financial assistance, help accessing health and community services, and help finding jobs and classes, including driving lessons.
With 72 different ethnic groups represented within MWA, Maha uses the common language of faith and religion to help women and men identify violence against women within their own cultures, with a specific focus on domestic violence. The challenges and complexities of operating an association for women among a myriad of languages and cultures is compounded by misconceptions of Islamic principles. There is a perception of uncertainty around how Islam regards violence against women, which has a destabilising effect on the community. The teachings of the Qur’an unequivocally emphasise the sanctity of all life and forbid all forms of coercion. Domestic violence and, in the extreme, practices such as killing to ‘restore family honour’ violate clear and non-negotiable Islamic principles. Through the Qur’an, Maha uses faith as a means to gain clarity over uncertainty, to build confidence in each individual’s religious identity, and as a guide to empower women to articulate their rights and make informed decisions.
Maha migrated from Lebanon to Australia with her family in the 1960s, barely speaking a word of English. A kind principal at Coogee Primary School took time outside school hours to help her with her studies and, since then, apart from having to cope with the occasional racial taunt, Maha has made friends quickly and embraced her new home and culture. Maha married in the late ‘70s and spent the next ten years focused on raising her four children. As her children grew older and began to ask questions regarding their identify, as Australians and Muslims, Maha began to search for some deeper answers. She herself wanted to look further into Islam and invest her life with greater meaning. This was when Maha became involved in MWA.
Maha studied at university as a mature age student and completed a Bachelor of Social Work, majoring in domestic violence, women’s rights, child abuse and mental health. This was followed by a Masters in Social Science, then a Graduate Diploma in Family Dispute Resolution.
In 1991, embracing both her nationality and her religion, Maha joined MWA, eventually serving as president (a volunteer position) for more than a decade. Maha has spent the last 23 years working together with MWA to help give Muslim women, often newly arrived immigrants, safety and assurance in difficult and trying circumstances. Today she represents and gives voice to Muslim women abroad as well as in Australia. She works at the local, national and international levels advising government on policy, services and strategies to create a harmonious community for future generations of Muslim and non-Muslim women.
In the mid-‘90s, Maha played a pivotal role in establishing the Metropolitan Muslim Foster Care Project (MMFCP) with the Department of Community Services (DoCS). The essence of Maha’s work with MWA is modelled in an Islamic way and complements the mainstream theory. Maha attaches great value to the role of women within the family and in society at large. In 2002 Maha received the NSW Premier’s Award for her role in setting up the Muslim Foster Care service.
In 2008 Maha was a Queen’s Birthday recipient of the Order of Australia medal and in 2013 she was awarded the NSW Premier’s Multicultural Medal. In 2014, she received the NSW Human Rights Award, an honour that formally acknowledges the work of exceptional individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to championing the rights of ordinary Australians. This award reflects her commitment to preserving freedom, fairness and dignity of human life within the Muslim community.
At the moment, due to government restructuring, future funding for the MWSC is uncertain. As the only refuge offering support and associated services specifically for Muslim women in Australia, MWSC creates a safe haven for women and empowers them through their faith. In a typical refuge, women normally stay a few nights before leaving for longer-term accommodation. At MWSC, because of visa and immigration issues, many women stay much longer, sometimes for months. As with most crisis accommodation facilities across Australia, MWSC is experiencing a rising increase in requests for help. Maha has faith that the government and other organisations will work together effectively to ensure the best outcome for all the women and children who are directly affected by domestic and family violence.