Conference paper
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ABSTRACT: Western multicultural democratic societies commonly hold two basic assumptions. First, that every person should have equitable access to and enjoyment of public spaces. Second, that everyone should be free to practice her/his culture and religion, subject to the national legal system. In reality however, such rights can be difficult to uphold. This is especially so given the growing complexity of the religious, cultural and gendered needs of different ethnic groups residing in multicultural cities. Situated in this broader context, our paper reports the findings of a study focusing on the public spatial requirements and experiences of Muslim women in Sydney.

The research revealed three main areas of concern for Muslim women in their use of public space. First is the notion of perceptional (dis)comfort. The Muslim women described a sense of otherness and not belonging as they moved about in the public domain. They encountered aggressive and subtle forms of discrimination, such as physical and verbal abuse, as well as experiencing unease moving about in places which were perceived to be dominated by the physical presence and gaze of men. Second, the Muslim women expressed frustration and dismay in not being able to find culturally and/or religiously appropriate public recreational facilities to achieve a healthy body. Difficulties related to the strict dress code of modesty required of most Muslim women when moving about in public. Even when slight building modifications could have rendered a facility suitable, these were not undertaken. Third, the research uncovered inadequate design and unsuitable placement of facilities within existing public spaces such as passive parkland and outdoor eating areas. This confines Muslim women to the home and restricts family outings.

Despite the reported difficulties, the Muslim women interviewed did not avoid public spaces. Indeed they had no choice as these environments are where they must shop, access essential services and catch public transport. But as they move about the public sphere their experiences of discrimination reinforce feelings of not belonging and otherness, thereby denying Muslim women their rights as citizens. This study raises important considerations for both the day-to-day provision of public space and the deeper philosophical and moral implications in meeting the needs of different groups in culturally and religiously diverse communities which is contemporary Australia.

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