Cross-Cultural Consultant and Curator at the Immigration Museum’s Faith, fashion, fusion exhibition. In the early 1980s, Tasneem Chopra was a Year 9 student at Bendigo’s Girton College. One sunny morning, when the students were restless and assembly was underway, the Australian folk rock band, Goanna, performed their seminal protest song, Solid Rock. Chopra, barely a teenager, and steeped in the traditions of a country Victorian upbringing, remembers hearing the song’s strident lyrics, each word clearly enunciated by lead singer and songwriter, Shane Howard. “I heard every word,” Chopra says, “and I remember thinking, this song doesn’t correlate with the Australian history that we’ve just been taught.”
Well they were standin on the shore one day / Saw the white sails in the sun / Wasn’t long before they felt the sting / White man, white law, white gun / Don’t tell me that it’s justified / Cause somewhere / Someone lied / Yeah, well someone lied / Someone lied / Genocide / Well someone lied.
“When I heard that song,” Chopra continues, “I realised that what is taught and what is, there can be dissonance. I think that was the birth of my questioning of everything, including the way I questioned the system, the status quo.”
Today, Chopra works in local and international development. She has a background in sociology and psychology, having graduated with a BA from Swinburne in 1990. In 2011, she completed her Masters in International Development at La Trobe University. She hopes that one day she can assist communities in Kenya – her country of birth. Meanwhile, she builds an impressive history in grassroots community engagement in Victoria. She has worked in the sector for more than 20 years, and is known for her valuable leadership roles in the Muslim community, and for her work with non-government organisations. She is Chairperson of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre For Human Rights (an organisation very close to her heart), an Ambassador for Possible Dreams International, and Chairperson to the board of Lentil As Anything.
As an independent Cross-Cultural Consultant, she presents workshops on race, identity and diversity to a range of audience members, including Supreme Court judges, police officers, church groups and students. She is one of a growing number of Muslim women in Melbourne keen to talk with the broader community about Islam, and the rights of Muslim women; to encourage conversations about “the extent to which a piece of material has taken on such political representation”. The headscarf, the burqa, the niqāb – Muslim women who choose to cover, Chopra says, are making a personal choice. “Women are making this choice as an affirmation of their faith to God, so it’s a very deeply intrinsic, spiritual reason.” Chopra, and other prominent Australian Muslim feminists and academics, including Susan Carland and Sherene Hassan, have spoken publicly about this and other issues surrounding Islam and their place within their faith. Chopra says when she turned 18, she chose to wear the headscarf – her mother and two sisters chose not to. She says, “I choose to wear the headscarf, the hijab… It’s not oppressive. If you tell me to take it off, that is oppressive.”
Stepping outside the conventions of this conversation is a new exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum titled Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim Women’s Style In Australia, which is set to shift the discussion to ideas surrounding identity and self-expression, engaging the community in a way that explores the “complexities, and layers and nuances” to the Muslim woman. Featuring 10 designers – six from NSW and four from Victoria – the exhibition showcases Muslim women’s fashion that reflects a diversity of style and flair; from beautiful, high-end couture to the more edgy and eclectic. The exhibition also reflects the increasing popularity of the modest dressed market, fast becoming an important part of the global fashion industry thanks to designers such as Aheda Zanetti, whose label, Ahiida®, is responsible for the famous Burqini® / Burkini® Swimwear and Hijood® Sportswear (designs which are featured in the exhibition).
The brainchild of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, the Melbourne component of Faith, fashion, fusionis curated by Chopra, who chose four Victorian designers: Dima Ghieth, Gertha Imelda, Shanaaz Jacobs-Copeland, and Zulfiye Tufa – thehijabstylist. She also profiles a selection of Muslim women in Victoria who have achieved “something individual and amazing in their own right”. Says Chopra: “The idea is to get people in to see the fashion, but to then discover, inadvertently, that this exhibition is equally about identity.”
When we meet, it is a warm Friday in Melbourne, and Chopra is soon sitting at her dining table, relaxed, drinking tea and talking about her week. As her public appearances suggest, she is a natural conversationalist. She is also generous with her time and an exceptional storyteller. Outside, the sun is high in the sky, and children’s voices can be heard in the distance.
Chopra, who was born in Kenya in 1970, is a fifth generation East African born of Indian heritage. She says she identifies more as Kenyan than Indian yet she grew up in Melbourne, the “only place I’d ever want to live,” she says. Her three children, who were born in Hoppers Crossing, identify as Indian. “Well, that’s what everyone at school says,” they admitted to her several years ago. It is an area Chopra finds fascinating – the formation of one’s identity, and how it is viewed, and judged, and understandably, it is fundamental to her work in social justice and community development.
In 1974 – three years after Idi Amin seized power in a military coup in Uganda, and one year after the final vestiges of the White Australia Policy were removed – Chopra’s family arrived in Australia. They spent nine months in “Alice” and then settled in Bendigo. “The Commonwealth of Australia was recruiting doctors from other Commonwealth countries,” Chopra says. “My dad was a doctor in Kenya, a Commonwealth country, and he was offered a job in Australia. He accepted.”
Fast forward to May 2013. Chopra, dressed in rich pink and golden heels, addresses a local audience for her TEDx Melbourne talk, Don’t Believe the Hype, Exceed It – The War Against Stereotypes. For nearly 16 minutes, she talks about her experiences and observations as a Muslim woman in Australia pre- (“Islam went from being an exotic unknown”) and post- (“to an entity that was to be feared”) 9/11. She hinges her discussion on the idea of (her terms), stereoTYPERS: people who apply stereotypes to others, and stereoTYPEES: people who are the victims of stereo TYPERS (“
Chopra discusses media’s propensity to promote difference as divisive, as something to be feared; difference sells (is more profitable) “when it is frightening”. Then there’s political will, the provocative language used by mainstream media, the importance of owning one’s narrative (as an activist, not an apologist), and much, much more.
“At one stage,” she says during her talk, “I was female, over 35, brown, short, Muslim, and with a headscarf. I was off the charts on the quota radar.” Audience members laugh, Chopra smiles, and adds, “but I owned it, I owned that difference because it gave me avenues to platforms I wouldn’t have previously had.” It is the crux of the discussion – the way in which it is possible to leverage some stereotypes into a positive.
Chopra’s talk, which has been viewed by more than 2,500 people on YouTube, is a significant contribution to discussions about oppression, social justice and the Muslim experience in the West, post 9/11. Indeed, conversations are, as Chopra often states, the antidotes to stereotypes. It’s okay to ask questions, she concludes. “Ask, because when we assume, we don’t grow and I think that’s how stereotypes are created.”
Faith, fashion, fusion: Muslim Women’s Style In Australia shows at the Immigration Museum, 400 Flinders St, Melbourne, until July 9, 2014