Let’s be clear: the majority of Australian Muslims have repudiated what Sheikh Hilali said. If these words were not misinterpreted, it’s appalling. As a women I was offended. As a Muslim I was repulsed by such a debasing attitude. It indicates the Sheikh’s irrelevance as a spokesperson for the Australian Muslim community, and undermines the incidence of sex assault in the Muslim community against women who wear a hijab or stay at home.

Coming from an “alleged” community leader, these comments are not defensible on any level. I haven’t heard anyone who shares his views. Today, he’s an island unto himself and no amount of backtracking will ameliorate the impact of his speech.

The fact is that the cross-cultural machine is working overtime in a bid to deconstruct the negative myths about Islam to the extent that individuals, like me, are making careers out of bridging the gap between mainstream Australia and the Muslim community. Once you get out there, the prevailing myths make themselves very apparent.

Chief among those are the misconceptions about Muslim women and their dress. For the vast majority, covering oneself is a sign of devotion to God. It’s got nothing to do with authority. It’s got nothing to do with a requisition from men. A man can’t make a women cover herself. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but in accordance with the faith, it’s a choice made by Muslim women. That is, compulsion when it occurs in religion does so in spite of the faith and not because of it.

Following that, the decision to cover oneself is about asserting who you are. To take that choice away by decreeing a women should or should not cover herself is a deprivation of liberty. It is a deliberate act of disempowerment.

Within the Australian community, there is a lot of innuendo about coercion, but there is no truth in those beliefs. Too often, media outlets project an image of Muslim women that’s highly viewable and accords with viewer expectations, but almost without exception ignores the more complex reality. For example, how many people know there are up to 70 ethnic groups, comprising over 130 different linguistic groups, practising Islam in Australia? Or that, for example, unlike the Taliban “template” of Muslim women, many Afghan Muslim women now living in Australia don’t wear a hijab? So much hype. So little fact. Reality shows the Muslim community here is awash with what its critics define as inconvenient truths.

Sadly, the Sheikh’s words have done little to make those realities any clearer for the average Australian.