Women across Australia and of all faiths are donning the hijab as part of a social media campaign aimed at countering anti-Muslim sentiment.
Women in Solidarity with Hijabis (WISH), which now has nearly 29,000 Facebook followers, asks women to show solidarity with Muslims by posting photos of themselves wearing a headscarf online.
It comes amid a surge of incidents targeting visibly Muslim women, who are bearing the brunt of the public’s suspicion and fear over last month’s counter-terrorism raids.
Lawyer and community advocate Mariam Veiszadeh started the WISH campaign and said the response has been “overwhelming”.
“The heartfelt messages of solidarity and the sheer number of women who have worn the hijab out, for a few hours, days or a week is just mind blowing,” she said.
“They are experiencing first-hand, albeit only a tiny snapshot, the kind of prejudice that visible Muslims are forced to endure.”
Through her involvement in the Islamophobia Register Australia, Ms Veiszadeh said she hears of Muslim women being subject to “horrific” verbal and physical abuse.
“Many are traumatised and undergoing professional counseling – it is entirely understandable that after their ordeal, they wouldn’t want to be in the public eye,” she said.
“So by sharing photos and messages of solidarity, we hope to restore their faith in humanity, and to remind everyone that those who seek to engage in acts of Islamophobia are a minority.”
She said the act of donning the hijab also forces participants to confront and overcome any fear or anxiety that might be associated with it.
“It de-stigmatises it, it normalises it, it helps remove negative connotations,” Ms Veiszadeh said.
Though the response has been mostly positive, the campaign has been criticised for drawing attention away from the “real issue”.
Melbourne-based freelance journalist Aicha Marhfour said media attention should be focused on Muslim women who are being attacked or threatened.
“One of the key issues that I had and I think a lot of people also shared is that they’re well meaning, but I think it’s more important to hear from Muslims as opposed to people trying to feel our pain,” Ms Marhfour told the ABC.
But Ms Veiszadeh said WISH does not intend to sideline the voices of those who wear the hijab and rather tries to unite women of different faiths.
“The WISH campaign has helped give a face to the humanity of Muslims and non-Muslims alike and helped build bridges,” she said.
She added that the social media campaign is not “offensive” as it was started by Muslim women who endorse the “hijab selfies”.
Echoing this view is Australian Muslim Sümeyye Uysal who commends WISH for transcending religious boundaries.
“I think the campaign is enlightening and it’s an amazing show of solidarity for both Muslim women who wear the hijab and women who don’t,” she said.
“You don’t have to be Muslim to support it, you just have to be human, and I really, really like that…
“It gives me the sense of warmness that I’m not alone.”
The Australian-born law student said she often attracts stares and racist comments for her appearance. In a recent encounter on a bus, she overheard two women say she should “go back to her home country”.
“Sometimes it frustrates you, it really annoys you, and you think, well, where am I supposed to go back to? I was born and raised in this country,” Ms Uysal said.
In spite of anti-Muslim incidents like this, Ms Uysal takes pride in her religious practices.
“I’ll admit that I feel proud of myself for being able to wear it [the hijab] in this sort of society and to justify it and represent it properly.”
While Western media often portray the hijab as a symbol of oppression, Ms Uysal said she wears it as a display of modesty and freedom.
“I don’t feel oppressed and if I ask a lot of my Muslim friends, we don’t feel oppressed by the scarf – I actually feel free because of it, it’s a freedom, the freedom to express myself,” she said.
“Nowadays, there is a lot of sexism, a lot of media focus on objectifying women and that sort of thing, so I feel like wearing the hijab counteracts that.
“It allows people to see us as a person, rather than as an object.”
In response to other stereotypes about Islam, Ms Uysal distinguishes her beliefs from those of extremist groups like ISIS.
“We count them as a minority, [Westerners] see them as extremists, we [mainstream Muslims] see them the same way,” she said.
“What they’re doing is not right, nowhere in the Qur’an does it state that you can go around killing innocent people…
“And it’s frustrating when people don’t believe that you don’t agree with them and assume all Muslims are like that.”
High-profile women who have joined the WISH campaign include Studio 10 presenter Jessica Rowe, Labor MP Julie Owens and comic Meshel Laurie.
Australian men have also expressed their support for this all-inclusive, national movement.