Image: Lahza Photography
Source: Museum VIctoria
Sherene Hassan was the first female Vice-President of the Islamic Council of Victoria and is currently a Board Director of the Islamic Museum of Australia. Sherene is widely recognised for her work promoting understanding and engagement between Australian Muslims and the broader community.
"My faith I suppose provides an impetus to constantly try and improve myself. It's not without its challenges. Having to contend with very negative stereotypes that seem to be incredibly pervasive amongst the wider community is not easy."
My name's Sherene Hassan. I was born in Perth, Western Australia. My parents migrated to Australia in 1966 and I was born three years after that. Dad's Egyptian and Mum's Iraqi. You know, the household was very happy but I found that, when I went to school, I was probably the only non-Anglo-Saxon student at the school, probably the only non-Christian student at school. So I'd go to great lengths to hide the fact that my parents were Arab, and there was no way known that I would want my friends to know that I was Muslim.
So, proudest moment in primary school was when I was chosen to be Mary at the end-of-year Christmas concert, but, somehow, our teacher discovered that I was Muslim and she wasn't too impressed that a Muslim was given the role of Mary. So, at the tender age of 11, I had to embark on my first inter-faith dialogue and explain that Muslims love and respect Mary, and there's a whole chapter in the Koran named after Mary.
It wasn't until I was about 19, when I was at a youth camp and I nearly drowned, that I... started to embark on my own spiritual journey - because, I think, for a 19-year-old to come so close to death is quite confronting. So I read the Koran for the first time from cover to cover, started to pray five times a day because I wanted to, not because I was being told to, and the final thing I did was put my headscarf on.
So, for me, the hijab is a faith statement. It's something... It's a tangible reminder of my connection with God. The thing about hijab to me that's really important is that it be about the choice. There are some Muslim countries that force Muslim women to wear a headscarf, which I completely condemn, but then there are Muslim countries that ban Muslim women from wearing the headscarf. So what we're saying is that it should be about what Muslim women want. They're more than capable of making that choice.
Some of the challenges of wearing the headscarf is... mainly having to contend with negative stereotypes. Or just people just assume you don't speak English. One lady came up to me at a restaurant and grabbed my hand, started squeezing my hand and said, 'I want you to know you are very welcome here.' I said, 'Yeah, thanks, love.' And not all the stereotypes are negative. One little girl, when I was teaching in Alice Springs for about six months, this little girl got all excited and she said, 'We've got Baby Jesus' mum teaching us today!' which was gorgeous, I thought. I wish more people would view me in a similar light.
I'm very passionate about building bridges with the wider community, and I've conducted over 950 talks on Islam to diverse groups from the Flying Fruit Fly Circus to... um, Australian Federal Police. And one thing that really amazes me is just to watch the transformation of individuals. Initially, school students, in particular, seem very fearful to be in the presence of a Muslim, to be at a mosque, and then after we chat and talk and share a joke, 35 minutes, 40 minutes later, they're completely relaxed, and it's incredibly rewarding to see that transformation.
I suppose the greatest challenge for me as a Muslim is trying to reclaim the narrative of Islam. And the best way that... I hope that this can be done is by the establishment of the Islamic Museum of Australia. It will be a wonderful opportunity for Muslims to showcase the exquisite art and architecture from around Australia and across the globe. But I'm constantly thinking of ways, you know, 'How do I get this message out?' to not just thousands of people, to millions of people. So, you know, a great way would be, I suppose, to write a rap, write a song, get it out there!
Don't think that I'm not strong I'm the one to take you on/Don't underestimate me, boy I'll make you sorry you were born/You don't know me the way you really should/You've sure misunderstood Don't call me oppressed/You've got some nerve and, frankly, that will never do/You know I don't belong to you/It's time you knew I'm not oppressed.
I suppose that means that my children will never talk to me again, but, hey, there we go. No shame!