No person should be assaulted while travelling to and from work on public transport, let alone a woman assaulted by a man. But for one Muslim woman, Hina, a routine train journey home from work quickly became a nightmare.
Hina was standing near the stairs on a packed train, travelling through the Sydney CBD on her way to Parramatta, when a man entered the train at around 5.30pm and pushed her with his shoulder.
Hina stepped back, thinking that the man wanted to use the stairs and shouldered her by accident. But the man only kept coming at her; he struck her with his shoulder and bag, then kicked her.
While doing this, he launched into a racist tirade against the helpless woman. Hina was shocked by the attack, but mortified that no one on the train attempted to stick up for her or defend her from the attack. The man eventually left the train at Redfern station.
Incidents like this have become increasingly common throughout Australia in recent months, with Queensland leading the states in the most hate-motivated crimes against Muslims. But other states, including NSW, have had their fair share too.
The incident was reported to the Islamophobia Register Australia, which records many of the reported attacks on Muslims. Some attackers are so blatant that they assault women in public in the middle of the day, even in crowded places.
Women who are wearing hijabs and either alone or with children are most vulnerable to attacks, because they are readily identified as Muslims and are physically easy for a man to overcome.
Several dozen attacks on women have been reported to the Register, making Muslim women feel threatened and unsafe.
Some women have even stopped wearing the hijab through fears of being attacked. One such woman, Nurcan Baran, said that while out with her daughter, she did not feel safe wearing a hijab. Mrs Baran said that even if there was no verbal or physical attack, the ‘silent judgment’ can make Muslim women feel like social outcasts.
One woman was threatened with having her hijab ripped off and burnt, and several mosques, houses and Islamic schools have been attacked and vandalised over the past year alone. One man pulled a Muslim woman out of her car and subjected her to a racist tirade, another pushed and yelled racism at a Muslim woman who was pushing her baby in a pram, another yelled racism and spat on a Muslim woman, and yet another entered a school with a knife. One mosque had a pig’s head and a cross thrown onto the grounds. The list continues.
Muslim university lecturer Dr Raihan Ismail, who wears a hijab, has been called a terrorist on the street by strangers on more than one occasion.
Some people in Australia think they have the right to attack people because they are from another race or religion, and women wearing the hijab who are walking alone or with young children are easy targets for cowardly racists.
The perpetrators of racist attacks are unlikely to be charged with a criminal offence. And even if they are, the penalties are often lenient.
Man charged in the UK
In a recent UK case, Spanish man Emiliano Sanchez confronted a woman who was wearing a niqab outside a supermarket and yelled: “Why are you wearing this? It is not the Qu’ran and it is not allowed in this country.”
He continued his verbal tirade against Mrs Shirin Akter and then pulled off her niqab, leaving her terrified and shaken. But although he was charged for the assault, he avoided prison time.
The Sheriff at Glasgow Sheriff Court said the offence was serious enough to deserve prison, but then gave Sanchez 250 hours of community service instead.
Does Australia need hate-crime legislation?
There is currently no specific criminal offence against assaulting people on the basis of their race or religion, which has led to calls for specific hate-crime legislation to protect people from being victimised in this way, and to send a strong message that this type of conduct is not acceptable in Australia.
But when it comes to sentencing, the magistrate or judge is required to take into account a range of factors, and one of those is whether the offence was motivated by hatred for, or prejudice of, a group of people that the defendant believed the victim belonged to.
This means that assaulting a person due to their race, religion or ethnicity is an aggravating factor before the courts.
Islamic community leaders and Muslims in general are greatly concerned about the attacks against members of their community, especially those against women and children. They fear that anti-Muslim sentiment also makes it more difficult for Muslim kids and young adults to develop and progress in Australian society.