On Monday the 27th of May 2019 the inaugural Victorian Bar Iftar dinner was held. It was a night of inspiration, comradery, and deep and informative conversation. Co-hosted with the Australian Intercultural Society and MC’d by former state senator of Kansas, Donald Betts Jr, the night was full of laughs, emotions and calls to action. The night began with a reciting of the Quran and call to prayer by Imam Aslam Muhammad, followed by a welcome speech from Victorian Bar President, Dr Matthew Collins QC. Matthew immediately drew attention to the historically white and male domination of the bar.
“In 1969, which is 50 years ago, there had been only 8 women who had signed the Victorian Bar roll… our first Indigenous Barrister signed the bar roll in 1991 which is only 38 years ago. And data is a bit hard to come by but we do know we had only a handful of Asian Barristers sign the Bar roll at the turn of the century. Not 1900, the year 2000. I’d like to be able to tell you about the history of Muslims at our bar, but our records, shamefully do not allow me to do so. Historically we have not collected data about the faith groups that are represented at our Bar.”
Matthew addressed his goal as president to create a bar that is diverse, claiming “The victorian bar must reflect the community it exists to serve, and until it does so, we have more work to do.”
Following Matthew’s passionate speech, Executive Director of AIS, Ahmet Keskin took the stage to educate the audience members on the true importance of Ramadan. “Ramadan for the muslim community is a time for purification. Purifying the mind, body, and the soul. The long period of not eating helps us to focus on our core purpose of our existence, and that is being a dutiful servant to our Creator and to our fellow human beings”. Ahmet goes on to explain that “being a servant to our fellow travelers in life can take many forms, however the underlying principle of any orderly behavior between individuals is no doubt mutual respect. Respecting one’s gender, color of skin, heritage, beliefs, whether a person believes in a creator or not, and other forms of respect is a key ingredient for a cohesive society”. He stresses the goals of AIS in “Accepting each other unequivocally as valued members of society who have a rightful place in society”.
After a delicious meal to break the fast, the keynote speaker, Ms Azmeena Hussain took the stage to give a rousing, passionate, and undeniably inspirational speech about Ramadan, the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood felt during the month of Ramadan, the bar, her life, and the challenges she has faced as a Muslim female lawyer. She told a heartwarming story of her mother and her journey to Australia and the challenges she faced as a woman from Sri Lanka on her own navigating to a new country. This was the beginning of Azmeena’s desire to become a lawyer as she saw how her mother’s lawyers provided a sense of comfort and peace in an otherwise hectic time in her life.
Azmeena dicsusses the bar and the need for diversity within, claiming that “without a diverse range of voices opinions and values at the table, not only are we likely stuck in a group think scenario, we arguably become limited in our definition of justice”. She addresses what it was like to be a Muslim woman in a predominantly white, male community of peers, once even being mistaken for a translator when she was really the one leading a case. She calls attention to society’s fear of silence, claiming that “turning a blind eye to negative rhetoric and potentially becoming immune to divisive negative reporting puts us in dangerous territory and we can’t allow this to become the norm”.
After this thought provoking speech, members of the audience offered their reflections on the evening and a vote of thanks was given by the Honorable Chris Maxwell, who said that the four words that came to his mind while reflecting on tonight’s dinner “courage, vision, persistence, and optimism”. He went on to say “this is a profoundly optimistic gathering. It’s built on a belief that we can learn and we can give, and it seems to me that’s the future of the world”.
We were able to meet with Dr Matthew Collins QC after the night came to an end to get his reflections on the evening. He recalled “a sense of good will from everyone in the room”. Matthew went on to discuss where this type of intolerance stems from and how we as a community can squash it – “There’s so much misunderstanding, born usually from ignorance. And australians do have a low level of intolerance around all areas of difference, but it is only a low level and knowledge breaks it down very quickly and a night like tonight shows that the things that unite us in our common humanity are so much more important than the things that make us different”.
Thus concluded an evening of true passion and inspiration with a new understanding of what it means to be accepting…and the true meaning of community.