When asked how she would describe 2014, the Executive Director of the Sydney Muslim Women's Association Maha Abdo says it's been a "rollercoaster" ride with "uncertainty on many fronts".
For a start, increasing tensions in the Middle East led to an upsurge of attacks on Muslim women, making it difficult for them to get on with their normal lives. Maha found herself counselling women who had been verbally abused, even spat upon by fellow Australians. Some women who had taken "steps forward", were "falling back into isolation." This is not a new problem for Muslim women in Sydney who complained of violent abuse and attacks as far back as after the first Gulf War in 1991.
At the same time however, the Muslim Women's Association was forced to deal with a crisis on the local front. In June, it received news from the NSW LNP government that its refuge and transitional housing for women and children fleeing domestic violence had not been funded in the first round of the NSW government's Going Home Staying Home reforms. This meant that the refuge, which has been operating for twenty-five years, was threatened with closure. The service was instructed to hand over its transitional houses to a big charity provider that had been offered a contract. Now all services were required to enter a competitive tender process.
Finally, good news came through last week. In the second round of the Going Home Staying Home tender, the Association's centre has been funded. In fact, it is set to expand. Now, rather than being an autonomous service, it will become the lead agency in a partnership to deliver a multicultural package of three refuges and other services.
There was never any doubt that the Muslim Women's refuge was a needed and worthwhile service. It's the only refuge of its kind in NSW. Maha was presented with a Multicultural award by then NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell in 2013 for her ‘exemplary service’ which had “identifiable, tangible outcomes”, one of which was the Muslim Women's Support Centre. The Centre also received a Law and Justice Foundation of NSW award last year.
The events leading up to this fresh decision have been stressful. Maha, her fellow workers and other families celebrated Ramadan together as usual in the refuge without knowing if they would have funding for 2015.
The Centre was unsuccessful in the first tender mainly because the new Going Home Staying Home fundings arrangements made it nearly impossible for individual services to be funded. No organisation was awarded the 'multicultural package' for South West Sydney. This provided hope for the Muslim centre.
Maha told New Matilda in July: “I can't explain to you the trauma this is causing everybody....There’s no transparency… there is so much uncertainty around.”
At the time the refuge was full and Maha was turning women away because she could not longer count on her transitional housing.
Back at the time when the tender was announced NSW Minister Gabrielle Upton warned that although “there are many organisations doing fantastic work to help the needy, a new approach is needed. We can’t continue to do the same thing for 30 years and expect a different outcome.” But Maha was not going to be treated as if she was a 'needy' supplicant. She told New Matilda that for years her team had worked to prove that the refuge is a “professional ethical organisation working within parameters of women working with other women... I think we have been silenced for some reason. “We have been such a voice and now they're saying ‘Wait, sit back like good little girls and wait until we tell you what to do next."
Following the news that there was a risk that the refuge could close, both NSW Labor and NSW Greens visited and offered strong support to the Muslim Women's Association. NSW Upper House MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi who is the only Muslim woman in an Australian parliament, was particularly supportive.
In August, Faruqi successfully moved a motion in NSW Parliament calling on the government to restore funding to the Muslim Women Association. She accused the NSW government of ignoring the “proven skill and achievements of specialist women’s providers” to deal with the precarious “situation of immigrant women who experience homelessness or domestic violence… to offer support in a trusted, welcoming and culturally sensitive environment”.
In August, Abdo received a NSW Human Rights award. Faruqi took the opportunity to push the NSW Minister for Citizenship and Communities Victor Dominello to advocate for the Muslim women's Centre by speaking to the Minister Upton. He declined to commit to doing so. In a release, Faruqi stated:
“Less than two weeks ago Minister Dominello announced Maha Krayem Abdo OAM, founder of the Muslim Women’s Support Centre, as the 2014 recipient of the prestigious NSW Human Rights Award – now he’s consigned the organisation and the women it supports to a dangerous and uncertain future. ...The Greens are calling on Minister Dominello to do more than just pay lip service to services for women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds – he must step up in his role as Minister and do everything he can to save these crucial services for people in need in NSW.”
By October, Maha and other Muslim women were fighting attempts to restrict access to the Australian parliament for women wearing Burquas. She told the ABC:
We are pushing them ( Muslim women) back into their homes, we're pushing them away from society that we want them to be part of. There's never been, you know, any evidence but I can't imagine when you go through security, how is it that it is a security threat when if you're asked to lift and show your face, whether you're a man or a woman, that is easily identifiable.
I feel like, you know, it's a laughing matter at the moment but it is so serious that it makes me laugh.
By this time, the Muslim Women's Support Centre had been told that to be successful in the second tender they would need to offer to lead the whole multicultural package which would include another two refuges in South West Sydney as well as their own.
Last week, Minister Upton announced that the Muslim women's refuge has won a tender from the NSW government to expand its work throughout southwestern Sydney. It will received $1.9 million over two and half years to set up and manage these services.
This time the Minister no longer struck a patronising note.
"I want to share with them in celebrating a refunding of their important work... " she said.
Abda said, "Over the last 18 months we've had a lot of obstacles and a lot of pain in... uncertainty," but she is relieved and proud to be asked to expanding the Muslim Women's Support Centre's methodology which is based on inclusiveness to communities beyond her own.
"Our aim is to not just provide early intervention and crisis programs but hopefully to eradicate domestic violence and homelessness," she said.
Let's hope that the Muslim Women's Support Centre is not put through the same wringer in three years time and that other community refuges that lost their funding such as Kempsey Women's Refuge have their funding restored to community run organisations managed by women.