Mecca laalaa works as a health promotion officer in schools with young people. In 2006 she became the first Muslim woman surf lifesaver in Australia and in 2009 walked the Kokoda Track.
What made you decide to join in the surf lifesaver training?
It’s actually a funny story because one of the organisers, Dr Jamal Rifi (President of the Lakemba Sports Club), was encouraging my brother to go along. It didn’t occur to him to tell me. So I saw this invitation one day and thought I’d like to be a part of that; spending your weekends on the beach isn’t so bad. So that’s pretty much how it all happened. I went along, and from then on just stuck to it. The responses from people around me were mixed. I guess the most important thing was that my family were supportive, my parents especially. They understood the importance of having a Muslim girl out there trying to make a difference, trying to highlight the capabilities of Muslim women.
It required weeks of training, which meant that I was at the beach from the early hours of the morning ‘til late at night. It was quite rough. I sprained my ankle and then I sprained my other ankle because I was walking on it too much. I fractured my nose and severed tendons in my fingers. That’s not including all the bumps and bruises that were involved. You think that it’s just a trip to the beach but it definitely required a lot of training, a lot of mental support.
The program was set up after the Cronulla riots to try to build a bridge between two communities. It was trying to build awareness too. A lot of people hadn’t met Muslims or Muslim women in particular and they probably thought that we were uneducated and slaves in the home. I think the program was effective in changing that image that people have, but we could definitely have more of it. It’s important for people to see who Muslims are and that we’re just as Aussie as anybody else.
Previously when I’d gone to the beach my clothing had been a barrier because I didn’t really want to swim in cotton pants and a long cotton shirt. It just took the fun out of it. But Aheda Zanetti, who is a genius, had come out with the idea of the Burqini and designed one for me that would help me swim better. The Burqini is amazing. It feels great and it’s UV resistant. Somebody who’s used to not being so covered up might feel a little bit restricted but for me it gave me all the freedom.
What was it like walking the Kokoda Track in 2009?
It was probably one of the scariest experiences of my life, but it was also one of the greatest. I went with a bunch of amazing people and we had highs and lows but that’s probably what brought us together. The Kokoda trip was again about building bridges. Dr Rifi chose a few people from the Bankstown/Canterbury area, which involved myself and two other girls and a young boy and also the Federal member for Bankstown, Jason Claire. We decided to go with a group of people from Cronulla and the Federal member from Cronulla, Scott Morrison. It was all about building relationships and sharing ideas and stories and at the end of it, regardless of what I was wearing or anyone else was wearing, we were just friends and teammates and going through the same experience together.
I didn’t consider myself to be the camping type so I decided to still be me and bring most of my clothing in pink. I guess I just needed to feel like I was still at home, just to keep home close to me. Pink is not necessarily my favourite colour but it meant I could be as girly as possible even though I was in the middle of a rainforest. It added a bit of humour to things too, which reflects my character.
A few of the people in the group reached a low point early on and people were probably betting about when I was going to go mental. But it actually wasn’t until the morning of the last day, just before we were going to reach Kokoda, that I sat in one spot, refused to move and just couldn’t go on any more. Physically and mentally I just felt that I could not go on. But I did, because I didn’t want to let the team down and they were really supportive.
Looking back at my experiences through surf lifesaving and Kokoda, it was all about taking advantage of the opportunity. So regardless of what comes my way, the only thing that I want to promise myself is that I will continue to take advantage of opportunities. The idea of me being a role model is really scary. I get a lot of people who haven’t met Muslim women before, telling me that they feel really comfortable around me and that they think I’m not like anybody else. The fact is that I think I’m like a lot of Muslim women. The women out there who are my role models aren’t necessarily in the media or out in the public, but for me it’s about their strong attitude, willingness and persistence.
What are some of the challenges you see for Muslims in Australia?
I think there are plenty of misconceptions around Muslim women in particular: that we probably can’t speak English and we’ve never gone to school and never been educated, have about a hundred children and are just at home cooking, doing nothing else. When in actual fact our families encourage us to get an education, to work, and empower ourselves and I think there’s more support from families towards women because of those misconceptions.
The main challenges Muslim women might face is racism and I think that’s because of lack of education, coming from what people see in the media. I guess I just take it upon myself to try and be the best Muslim that I can in promoting Islam. You know we are just as normal as anybody else and my choice of faith shouldn’t make any difference to you.
Choosing to wear the scarf hasn’t been that difficult for me because I grew up in an environment where that was normal and there were plenty of Muslim women around. But I guess also the most important thing is that my parents gave me the ability to know that it doesn’t really matter what other people say just as long as you’re confident and you know that what you are doing is best for you. Then you know that’s how you can stay true to yourself and to your faith your family and your friends.
Islam pretty much means submission to God. It comes from the word ‘salaam’ which means peace and that’s important because a lot of the connotations associated with Islam these days are negative and completely the opposite to peace. Islam gives me a sense of peace within myself, within my family and within my community and it really is my guide in life.
That’s the path that I’ve chosen and I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. Wearing the scarf has been my choice and hasn’t been influenced by my father as people may think — or anyone else. It was my choice.
You got married recently?
Probably one of the most important experiences of my life was when I got married and part of all that excitement involved designing my wedding dress. A lot of people tend to go for the puffy dresses but I wanted it to look Islamic without being typical, which was hard to do. My dress was an ivory colour, and it included three pieces, pretty much like a boob tube dress that was mermaid style. What a lot of Muslim women tend to do is just to wear a skivvy or a tight top under their dress but I didn’t want that. I wanted it to look seamless and so my designer made a bolero that just sat on the top and it matched the rest of the wedding dress. And I had a beautiful scarf with a beautiful head piece, so it was really simple and elegant.