Tasneem Chopra was waiting at the lights to cross a road when a man in a nearby car wound down his window and shouted, “Hey, where’s your bomb, baby?”
Her quick response showed not only a sense of humour but drew attention to the stereotype. She pointed to her handbag and mouthed the words: “IN THE BAG”.
This small but memorable incident occurred on a Melbourne street a couple of years after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.
Telling this story during a recent speech at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, Ms Chopra said ideas about Muslims in Australia had changed since 9/11, and that “vile” stereotypes about who and what a Muslim was, were rife.
She said stereotypes Muslims faced today were far removed from the “pretty innocuous” perceptions she grew up with as a child in 1970s Bendigo.
Being Muslim in Australia
Ms Chopra moved with her family from Kenya to Bendigo shortly after the White Australia policy ended in 1975. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was embarking on an immigration program inviting professionals and their families to make Australia their home. A highly qualified doctor from a war-torn Commonwealth nation, Ms Chopra’s father was able to bring his family to Australia with relative ease.
She said back then, peoples’ knowledge of Islam extended to vague ideas about “Arabs with camels in the desert” and not eating pork or drinking alcohol.
"In a geopolitical sense, the world has changed a lot," Ms Chopra said.
"September 11 was a major catalyst to make Muslims a threat."
She said the media had a lot to do with the way Muslims were perceived now.
"People's only source of information is tabloid television," she said.
"Hollywood film or 60 Minutes - that's their knowledge of Muslim women.
"There's a lot to pick and choose when it comes to demonising the other and Muslims are a very easy target.
“It’s very convenient for fear mongers to paint the entire faith on the actions of the few."
After high school Ms Chopra moved to Melbourne where she has remained, though she claims her Bendigonian roots with pride.
She is now a cross-cultural consultant, art curator and activist and is a key voice in discussions about Muslim identity in Australia.
Ideas about Muslim women
Ms Chopra said ignorance and lack of personal connection to Muslims was the main reason stereotypes existed. At many of her guest talks she is the first Muslim woman that audience members have ever spoken to. She said people often had ideas about Muslims that were untrue, especially when it came to Muslim women.
She said the belief that Islam encouraged oppression of women by men was incorrect.
“Violence against women does happen across the globe, and it’s not because of Islam, but in spite of it."
She said oppression of women was not “religiously sanctioned”.
“The reality of Islam in itself is that it’s a peaceful faith.”
Oppression and violence, she said, were instead the effects of a “political situation and cultural interpretations”.
"Culture, politics, misogyny or patriarchy, or whatever you want to call it."
Stereotypes because of fear
Renowned Islamic studies expert and Deakin University professor Shahram Akbarzadeh said stereotyping of Muslims happened because of fear.
“Fear is a human emotion. It’s unavoidable that people might fear. They don’t know anything about it (Islam) and fear really breeds on ignorance. You always fear what you don’t know. I'm not surprised there's been fear about Islam, it has had really bad press in the last ten years."
Professor Akbarzadeh said assumptions that all Muslims in Australia supported or were involved with terrorist activity made them feel “marginalised” and “not welcomed”.
He said it was important the broader Australian community differentiated between “a few bad individuals and the Muslim community”.
A lot of people who are inclined towards extremism leave their mosque communities fairly early on because the imams will challenge the idea that they should engage in acts of violence.Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
Radicals outside the mosque
Professor Akbarzadeh said Muslim leaders in Australia were in fact actively countering extremism.
“A lot of people who are inclined towards extremism leave their mosque communities fairly early on because the imams (mosque leaders) will challenge the idea that they should engage in acts of violence and they feel not welcome in the mosque community and they leave,” he said.
“They become radicalised outside the mosque rather than inside the mosque.
"A mosque is not a hot bed of jihadists, it is the opposite."
He said Muslims were more concerned with family, education of their children and were far removed from the "few nut cases" committed to fighting and jihad.
Need for education
Professor Akbarzadeh said education was the best way to respond to the “broad brush” often applied to Muslims.
"There are many different versions of Islam, many different groups practise Islam, so the broad brush approach is not very educational or helpful."
He said mosques in Melbourne were having success with an “open door policy” - an opportunity for the broader community to visit a mosque and see what happens there.
Tasneem Chopra has been invited into Christian churches to talk about her faith and said mosques should be inviting others to engage with them in a similar way. She believes interfaith gatherings between Muslims, Christians and Australians of other faiths would help demystify Islam and educate the community.
Dr Ahmed Hassan grew up in Bendigo at the same time as Ms Chopra and remembers his father, Mohamed Hassan, organised the city’s first interfaith dialogue in 1976.
“He realised people didn’t really know much about other faiths,” he said.
Dr Hassan is an ophthalmologist in Melbourne but volunteers his spare time to promote understanding about Islam.
Four years ago, he and wife, Sherene, founded the Islamic Museum of Australia. The museum's mission is to "build bridges of understanding between cultures", telling the story of Muslims’ contribution to Australia from the Afghan camel traders in the 19th century to the present day.
Dr Hassan said Muslim Australians today represented many different cultural backgrounds and it was unfair to make stereotypes.
He said generalisations about Muslims was akin to thinking that Christians from an African village, New York City and the Philippines were all the same.
“How can you possibly generalise, or put us all in one category," he said.
Muslims in Bendigo today come from diverse backgrounds: Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Palestine, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Turkey, Lebanon and some African nations.