Five years ago Sadia and Abdullah and their family came from Indonesia to Australia to live. They have settled in well. They are both hardworking, intelligent and outgoing people, as well as being deeply religious. Their children have fitted in at the local school, where two of their sons enjoy being part of the school’s Australian Rules footy team. Their daughter Ruba is a lively, well-coordinated eleven-year old who is a ‘natural’ at netball. Her school would like to select Ruba to play in the school side but she, as the child of observant Muslims, is obliged to wear modest dress and the hijab, the headscarf customarily worn by Muslim girls and women. Her parents feel for Ruba but are firm in their insistence that the wearing of modest dress is pleasing to Allah and the right thing to do. Though they are glad to live in Australia, they are shocked at some of the excesses of behaviour and permissiveness of Australian society and do not want their children to take that path. Ruba partly understands her parents’ stand but badly wants to play, and she also notices that her brothers have no constraints on their participation. The school allows students the freedom to wear the hijab and dress according to religious requirements but expects that members of the sporting teams representing the school will wear the team uniform. Should the school relax its expectations so that Ruba and others can participate? Or should her parents adjust to the fact that they are living in a society where social mores are different, and allow their daughter to wear the usual netball outfit?

What are the implications of this simple dilemma for how Ruba will come to understand herself as a Muslim, as an Australian, as a woman? What are the implications for Australia? Ought Australia, as a free, multicultural society, accommodate the customs and values of all those accepted as immigrants?  Is any other response simply racism? Or is it reasonable to expect that those who make a home here will adjust to ‘the Australian way’ and adopt an Australian identity?  Will this happen inevitably as particular cultural identities merge in the second and succeeding generations?

Finding The Facts

This issue, while simple and apparently quite personal, has many facets. Questions concerning religion, cultural and personal identity, sexism, racism, multiculturalism and health are raised by it.

The Quran

Overcoming ignorance is the first step towards making an ethical response. Therefore it is important to find out why Sadia and Abdullah consider it nrcessary that their daughter wear the hijab. Firstly, look at the verses from the Quran which form the basis for the Islamic dress code. This article concludes with some discussion questions. The site also contains other relevant articles under the heading ‘Women in Islam’.

Resistance or Repression?

However, even within Islam, there are differences of opinion about wearing the hijab. ‘The Veil: Resistance or Repression?’  by Silja J.A.Talvi, looks at the ways in which the hijab has been politicised and used as a sign of Islamic resistance to Western influence, and also at ways in which it has been used to repress women.

Some of the concerns of this writer are taken up in a controversial article in The Age: ‘Germaine, the Limp Liberal’ Pamela Bone criticises the feminist Greer for not protesting about religious and cultural codes which Bone sees as repressive of women. Ruba herself, though only a youngster, has noticed that her brothers do not have similar restrictions on their dress.


Further questions about the intersection of issues surrounding sport, girls, culture and identity are raised in an interesting discussion arising from the film Bend it Like Beckham on Radio National.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Finally, a report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, ‘Consultation with Refugee Women’ looks at ways that negative responses to cultural or religious customs often reflect underlying racism. Many issues are raised in this document concerning the difficulties migrant members of society face in settling in and feeling at home. The paragraph in Theme 1 on ‘visibility’ is particularly relevant. So too is Theme 2, which discusses the difficulties of the children of immigrant families and their lack of certainty as to where they belong.


Having read the suggested articles, list the main reasons Islamic women wear the hijab.

  • List the main arguments against the practice.
  • Evaluate both lists. Are they inevitably opposed in principle?

Pamela Bone describes the veiling of women as ‘the world’s most potent symbol of women’s oppression’. Comment on this point of view, taking account of all the opinions expressed in articles in this section, including those in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) Report.

What values are shared by the four women discussing Bend It Like Beckham? In particular, how do they see the value of sports participation?

An Australian school decides that in the interests of equality of treatment and expectation, of girls and boys alike, girls in the school swimming team will be required to wear the same attire as the boys, that is, swimming trunks only.

  • Would parents/students be entitled to be offended?
  • On what grounds might they object to this requirement?
  • How does reflecting on this hypothetical situation help you understand Ruba’s parents’ attitude?

Broadening Perspectives

Ethical relativism

The issues raised by the predicament of Ruba are a local manifestation of a broader debate about the impact of culture on identity and behaviour.  A ‘baseline definition of culture’ and the simple definition of relativism embedded in the text introduces the concept that values may not be absolute but depend on the cultures in which they arise. Hence Ruba’s family values modesty and religious practice highly, while the school she attends values participation in sports and egalitarianism (no distinguishing external features among team players). Others interested in this issue might value the freedom of women and girls to participate unencumbered and so on. Who is right, or is anyone right? Are there objective standards of right and wrong or is everything relative?

Ethical Relativism’ an article on the Centre for Applied Ethics site, sets out the terms of the debate while arguing in favour of the possibility of establishing objective moral principles.

Another longish article, ‘Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism  on the same site, takes a somewhat contrary view. The author compares his moral horror about the head-hunting practices of a Filipino tribe with the moral horror of members of the tribe when they hear that he may be called up for military service and arbitrarily be forced into a situation where his death is highly likely.  This article goes into some detail in distinguishing between cultural relativism (which accepts the range of differing customs and habits within human groups) and ethical relativism (which accepts the moral and ethical positions of a group rather than measuring them against an absolute standard). The author considers himself to be a cultural relativist but not an ethical relativist.

A third article, ‘When Rights and Cultures Collide’, strongly argues for the universal acceptance of individual human rights over and above cultural practices which threaten these.

These three articles are generally dealing with human rights which are more serious than whether or not a child should be free to play a game wearing a headscarf (respecting a cultural/religious practice of modesty) or unencumbered (respecting the right of a girl not to be curtailed in her participation). But they do show us some of the issues behind the debate and help us examine our own assumptions.


Another issue raised by Ruba’s difficulty is the extent to which the opposition to the wearing of the hijab represents a rejection of another cultural group or demand for conformity and therefore is a form of racism. An excellent article by Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya of the University of Western Australia, entitled ‘Understanding Australian Racism: A Prelude to Combating Racism’ shows that while racism based on the supposed inferiority of other races is discredited and no longer intellectually respectable in Australia (even though its legacy sometimes remains below the surface), racism based on ‘differentiation’ is alive and well. This new kind of racism rejects and excludes people not on the basis of race per se but on the basis of social incompatibility, difference and potential threat to local or national identity and unity, i.e. for being ‘un-Australian’. Typically, the argument runs: ‘They chose to come here, they have to fit in, learn English, adopt our values, be like us…’  An Australian education site Racism. No Way!, aimed at younger students, was set up to combat attitudes like this. A helpful part of this site is a timeline overview of key events in Australia’s development as a culturally diverse nation.

Australia’s commitment to cultural diversity can be seen in the support given to women in hijabs through the online campaign WISH – Women In Solidarity with Hijabs. However, it is not always seen in practice. Recently in the Australian Parliament, a controversial ban on women in burqas was passed banning them from sitting in open galleries while parliament was sitting.  Some other countries have policies that are not in favour of multiculturalism. France and, surprisingly, Turkey, which has a predominantly Muslim population, have tried to ban the wearing of hijab to preserve the secular nature of its public schools.

Several sites provide the background to the French controversy. Among them are an article in The Guardian on the niqab ( which veils the face as well as the head), an older article in The Economist, and a report by Elizabeth Bryant. The French ban on the niqab is also presented in some detail in an article on Wikipedia


Ethical relativism

  • As a class, brainstorm ordinary everyday language to explain the concepts of identityethical relativismcultural relativism, human rights, absolutism and universalism.
  • Do you agree that there are universal moral standards? Give examples of behaviour that would be wrong under any circumstances.
  • Is there a ‘right’ answer to Ruba’s problem?


  • Create two scenarios that illustrate the differences between what Professor Jayasuriya calls ‘old’ and ‘new’ racism. What has changed? What remains the same?
  • Australian government school systems were established under the motto ‘free, secular and compulsory. What do you understand by the word ‘secular’? What freedom is the concept of secularism designed to protect? France has taken a strict line on the secular nature of French schools. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a secular school system? Would it be better for Ruba to attend an Islamic school?
  • Foreigners arriving in France must understand that henceforth their ancestors are the Gauls. They have a new fatherland. Islam has a place in France provided it is willing to stay as discreet as the other religions.’ (Jean-Claude Barreau, former head of the French Office of International Migration). Should immigrants be expected to forego their previous identity and be ‘discreet’ in their religious practice in a new land?
  • Imagine a conversation between M. Barreau and Professor Jayasuriya. (Hint: Reread their articles first.)

Exploring Sacred Texts

We need look no further than the gospels to gain an appreciation of the scriptural response to strangers and outsiders of any kind. The gospels also describe the effects on Jesus himself of his own experiences of being prejudged and marginalised.

Jesus, himself a victim of prejudice

Both the Gospels of John and Mark give accounts of Jesus as a victim of prejudice. Mk 3:20–22 shows that Jesus’ relatives judged him to be out of his mind, while the scribes thought that he was possessed by demons. In Mk 6:1–4, Jesus is dismissed as merely the carpenter’s son. Mark comments on the effect that lack of respect had on the effectiveness of Jesus’ mission: ‘He could work no miracle there… he was amazed at their lack of faith’. In Jn 7: 52 Jesus is dismissed because he comes from Galilee, in other words, he is a country bumpkin from a region tainted with paganism and religious laxity. In John’s gospel, the Pharisees silence Nicodemus, a tentative follower of Jesus who attempts a defence of Jesus, by ridiculing the idea that anything worthwhile could come from Galilee.

  • What part do prejudice and ridicule play in the treatment of those who are ‘different’?
  • Discuss the eventual effect on individuals of persistent lack of respect?

Jesus, transcender of boundaries

Jesus frequently ignored social and religious boundaries in his relationships with others and deliberately associated with groups and individuals who were ‘on the outer’. Two typical examples are his association with those labelled as public sinners Lk 15:1–12 and thus separated from decent society, and his extraordinarily free and gracious relationship with women exemplified by the conversation with the woman at the well, (Jn 4: 4–9, 27,40), who was not only a woman but a foreigner, not only a foreigner but someone with a colourful sexual history.

  • What social and religious boundaries exist in our own society?
  • Who crosses them and what is the result of this?

Jesus, open to the insights, actions and intrinsic worth of outsiders

Jesus shows that he is open to allowing his own understanding and response to be broadened by his association with outsiders. He allows his own preconceptions to be challenged by a foreigner (Mt 15: 22–28)when a Canaanite shows implicit confidence in the power of his word.

He accepts the potentially embarrassing gesture of the woman who bathes and anoints his feet (Lk 7:36–47).

He uses a Samaritan (a member of a group generally despised on both religious and racial grounds) as the hero in his parable about neighbourliness (Lk 10: 33–37) and notes that the one leper who expresses gratitude for his cure is a Samaritan (Lk 17: 11–19).

  • What can people from other backgrounds/traditions show us about ourselves?
  • What do these gospels tell us about people from different backgrounds?

Jesus, standing with those who are victims of prejudice

The most outstanding example of the way Jesus stands with the victims of prejudice is the account of the woman taken in adultery (Jn 8: 3–11). Nothing could have prepared this woman for the surprise of being defended by a holy man, nor for the courage with which Jesus defended her, nor for the graciousness shown her as the accusers departed.

  • Who are present-day victims of prejudice? Who stands with them and asserts their dignity?


  • Based on your responses to the reflection points above, summarise Jesus’ attitude to those beyond his own religious and social horizon and explain what that means for the way Christians are called to relate to those from unfamiliar racial or cultural backgrounds.

Understanding the Catholic Tradition

From its very beginnings, the Church has been orientated to the wider world and perceived its role as a universal one, irrespective of different cultures.

Gospel of Matthew

Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, ‘Go out to the whole world…’ The early Church rejected a ghetto existence and quickly enculturated itself first of all in the Greco-Roman world and then wherever it spread.

Second Vatican Council

Yet there have been times in its history during which the Church has seemed to turn inwards and concern itself only with its own culture and affairs.  The Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII in the 1960s orientated the Church once again towards the world. The opening words of the final document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, refocused the attention of the whole Church on its real mission:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men (and women) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts… Hence this Second Vatican Council… now addresses itself without hesitation, not only to the sons (and daughters) of the Church and to all who invoke the name of Christ, but to the whole of humanity. For the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.

The full text of  The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is available on the Vatican site. Paragraphs 26–28 and 58–59 speak explicitly of human dignity and relationships with those who differ from us in any way and the connection between the gospel and human culture.

Back to the Scenario

So, concerned as it is with ‘the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of those of this age’ what might the teaching of the Church have to say about the dilemma Ruba, her family and school find themselves in?

Pope John Paul II

A very clear and coherent document outlining the Church’s response to the issues raised by Ruba’s situation is a message delivered by Pope John Paul II on World Peace Day 2001, entitled ‘Dialogue between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace’. Its headings give an indication of what the document is all about. Some of these headings are:

  • Mankind and its different cultures
  • Human development and being part of a culture
  • Cultural differences and mutual respect
  • Dialogue between cultures
  • Possibilities and risks of global communication
  • The challenge of migration
  • Respect for cultures and the “cultural profile” of different regions
  • The recognition of shared values

The Pope speaks respectfully of the way culture shapes individual identity but claims that cultural diversity is always to be understood within the broader horizon of our common humanity. While respecting the variety of human cultures he shows that he is not a relativist by making the point that ‘the authenticity of each human culture, the soundness of its underlying ethos, and hence the validity of its moral bearings, can be measured to an extent by its commitment to the human cause and by its capacity to promote human dignity at every level and in every circumstance’.

He critiques both a ‘radicalisation of identity’ which resists any outside influences and the ‘slavish adoption of western-style culture’ with its emphasis on consumption and materialism. From the point of view of Ruba’s difficulty, the section which deals with respect for cultures and different cultural profiles, paragraph 14, is especially interesting.

Sandie Cornish

Closer to home, Sandie Cornish’s summary of proceedings at a conference entitled Building Bridges: Communities Of Faith Working Together In Multicultural Australia, sponsored by the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office and the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, raises some local issues.


  • Gaudium et Spes (The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) has been called ‘the Magna Carta of human dignity’. It is the longest document produced by a Church Council in the 2000 year history of the Church. Explore its message by looking at significant quotations on a site devoted to Catholic social teaching.
  • Read section 14 of the document Dialogue between Cultures which is entitled ‘Respect for cultures and the”cultural profile” of different regions’.
    – What is the Pope saying about the relationship between the dominant culture and the immigrant culture?
    – What implications does this paragraph have for Ruba’s situation?

Respecting Other World Views

The views of the other great faiths on acceptance of different cultural and religious stances encompass the usual range of human response. It is important not to judge other religions by regimes or individuals who represent narrow or fundamentalist views within religious traditions. As Catholics, we would not want the Church’s teaching on relationships with other belief systems to be represented, for example, in terms of the Inquisition. Our tradition is much broader and more humane than that dreadful episode might indicate.


At the present time, there are many regimes characterised by militant Islamism in which respect for other religious and cultural principles is minimal. However, Islam in itself is certainly not a narrow or intolerant faith. Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro’s article entitled ‘Islam & Religious Tolerance aims to clear up misconceptions about Islam and its relationship to other faiths, particularly Christianity and Judaism. This site is translated from Arabic into several languages. Click on the Union Jack for the English version and in the left toolbar click on Muslim Christian Dialogue.


Hinduism, with its multiplicity of gods and lack of a central theological system, has traditionally been among the most tolerant of religions. However, in modern times the politicising of Hinduism and its connection to Indian nationalism in the wake of its colonialist past has understandably led to some anti-European and anti-Christian hostility. A brief article, Hinduism and Religious Tolerance explains more. A problem for Western and Christian understanding is the Hindu caste system which was officially abolished in 1949 but which continues to have considerable social impact, especially in the Indian countryside. The system originated in the worthy idea that belonging to a particular caste would lessen envy and rivalry among people, but as the castes acquired greater or lesser status the system became terribly discriminatory, with the Dalits or outcasts, required to do menial work and stay apart from others in case of ritual pollution.


Buddhism originates in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu of about 500 BCE. His quest for the answer to human suffering led him to seek the path of enlightenment. By both its origins in Hinduism and the personal nature of its search for enlightenment, Buddhism is a fundamentally tolerant faith. It seeks detachment and freedom from desire and is deeply respectful of all forms of life, as it believes in a continuous cycle of reincarnation, which leads eventually to Nirvana – a state of perfect liberation and enlightenment.


With Christianity and Islam, Judaism is one of the three monotheistic faiths sharing belief in one, holy God the origin and end of all creation. As with Christianity and Islam there are elements within Judaism that are extremist and intolerant of other views; however, this is not characteristic of the tradition as a whole.  Historically the Jewish people have suffered persistent suspicion and persecution culminating in the obliteration of millions in the pogroms of the mid-twentieth century. Numerically Judaism is small, though its influence in the world is great. Jewish people, depending on their level of religious commitment, keep themselves aside somewhat from society. Nevertheless, they participate in daily life and have made invaluable contributions to every society they have lived in. An article on Jewish migration to Australia reminds the reader that the Jewish people have often been on the move in their efforts to escape the persecution that has been their lot.


Having read the suggested articles on the attitudes of the various faith traditions to those of differing faiths (and other articles previously referred to), see if you can write brief scenarios to illustrate how Ruba might be expected to be treated if her parents tried to enrol her in:

  • a village school in rural India
  • a government school in Marseilles
  • a junior school in Tel Aviv
  • a school in Seoul
  • a public school in Ankara
  • a school in southern USA

Examining Personal Experience

Personal identity is formed in many ways. Apart from the genetic predispositions we inherit from our parents, cultural influences from the moment of birth shape the kind of person we become. Foremost among these influences are parents and family. The family is the first way in which our cultural identity is shaped because parents, themselves deeply formed by their culture, pass it on both consciously and unconsciously. Children are taught who they are explicitly, and also gradually assimilate identity and a particular way of behaving through watching and listening to their families and through the experiences their families introduce them to. Experiences of play, media, activities beyond the family, reactions of others, school, religious formation, the national and social context and eventually work, all contribute to our acquiring the identity or identities we eventually possess.

Review the formative influences that have made you who you are.

Reflect on how the influences on Ruba and on the formation of her cultural identity are almost inevitably in conflict because her family now finds itself within a community that, while it is not necessarily hostile, does not support the family’s cultural and religious practices. How will she and her family negotiate both the requirements of her faith tradition and the expectations of her new community, represented by the school? How will she come to understand herself as an individual, a woman, a Muslim, an Australian – and what can be done to help her?


  • Find out the facts.
  • Broaden your perspectives.
  • Explore the sacred texts.
  • Understand the tradition.
  • Consider other world views.
  • Review your personal experience.
  • Articulate your own response.

Articulate a response.

Current Catholic Context

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference have created the document below based on religious tolerance to facilitate understanding of this issue through focused discussion, education and questioning. The purpose of the Conference was to listen to what might be stumbling blocks to communicating the Church’s messages on various hot media topics. A one-page flyer has been prepared about each issue stating the Church’s position, current messaging and resources.