Hana Assafiri opened Melbourne’s Moroccan Soup Bar 20 years ago this June.
Now the owner of two restaurants, she hires only Muslim women as a form of positive discrimination.
She is also the founder of Speed Date a Muslim, a community event to combat Islamophobia.
Since revelations of sexual abuse and harassment have gone viral with the #MeToo movement, Hana Assafiri believes it’s her turn to end the silence. For the first time, she shares her personal story of abuse.
Tell me about your childhood.
I was born in Melbourne in 1964. I am the middle of five children, plus I have another sister 17 years older than me. My Dad’s Moroccan, my Mum grew up in Lebanon. We spoke Arabic at home because Mum didn’t speak English. She felt a sense of isolation and her entire existence was around the family and the home. When I was five or six, we moved to Lebanon. My father travelled to find work and he left us in Lebanon for many years.
When did the abuse start?
This man was on the scene before I was born. He was married to my older sister so he was always part of the extended family.
I was four when he began to help himself to my body. He had me believe this was a normal part of growing up.
Nobody knew about it. He maintained the secrecy by saying “In our culture, if anyone found out, I would have to marry you”. I didn’t want to be married to him, so it forced me stay silent.
[Note: The Assafiri family came back to Australia in 1976 when Hana was 12. By then, Hana couldn’t speak a word of English, and for a year refused to speak at all at high school. She felt like an outsider, even in her own home. All this time, the sexual abuse continued.]
What happened when you turned 15?
At 15 was the last time he abused me. He took me out of school and when he returned me I was in a state. For the first time I confided in a teacher. She realised I was behaving quite strangely, even for me.
She insisted that my family should be told and I felt that she didn’t understand the culture and family dynamics, and the last thing I wanted was to have to marry this guy because I assumed if she told my family I would have to marry him. I couldn’t deal with that reality.
So I took a whole heap of pills that my mother had and ended up in hospital and that’s where Mum and the family found out [except for Dad. He didn’t find out until many years later].
My mother responded the best way she knew how. She was afraid about the humiliation and embarrassment to the families. She felt the only way of solving this massive problem was for me to marry and then we would somehow transition through this unscathed. Then she found me a husband.
How were you allowed to be married at 15?
It was 1980 and in Australia there were laws which enabled your guardian to give consent on your behalf. So I was married to someone I’d seen very few times.
It was like he was on a shopping expedition and picked me and everybody who was an adult and a decision-maker thought he was a good man, including the perpetrator of my sexual abuse.
I thought “I don’t care, just get me out of this situation”, only to find myself in a profoundly violent marriage.
I gave birth within 10 months of being with him. The marriage lasted three-and-a-half years with two children. He wanted a child every year; an entire football team, as he said.
Thankfully the boys are nothing like him.
After the marriage ended you went back to school at 19?
I was 19 and I loved it. I went back to school regardless of the humiliation of being the oldest kid.
It was a walk in the park compared to where I’d been. At school I just sat there absorbing knowledge.
Your sons were living with their father. How did you move forward without them?
It was very difficult living without the boys.
Their father was given sole custody because he had better means of looking after them. With no regard for the violence and the circumstances, I was deemed not to be able to care for the boys.
Then their father moved them to Sydney.
I locked myself in my room and was depressed and getting more depressed and felt longing and grief.
Until one day, I opened the door and decided ‘it is what it is’. It’s time to get up and get out of that room.
And I did. It was like a metamorphosis. I came out into a world where I moved from being a toddler, to crawling, to walking, to learning how to sit in a cafe for the first time and to explore what it was I liked and to be guided by essentially my barometer, my intuition, which is where I am now.
Hana is the founder of Speed Date a Muslim, a community event designed to combat Islamophobia. (ABC: Compass)
How did you start the Moroccan Soup Bar?
It was 1998 and I was driving down a road and saw a for lease sign.
I thought, ‘why not? I don’t know what it will look like, but it will be a safe haven, an environment which validates women, and we’ll shape it and we’ll enable it to evolve’. So I called the agent and brokered a deal.
You started Speed Date a Muslim in November 2015. What is it?
I wondered how we could creatively engage communities with a sense of humour, given the irony that Muslims theoretically don’t date.
In a kind of speed-dating event, we bring people together — Muslims sitting across from non-Muslims — where people can ask any question they like about Islam.
The sessions are designed to debunk myths about Islam and further tolerance and understanding. (Supplied/Hana Assafiri)
Did you ever confront your abuser?
I saw him many years ago. I had been driving, and in my rage imagined I would ram him into the wall. So I revved the car and then a calm came over me. I got out of the car and looked at him and said:
“Be very afraid. We will all be accountable for our behaviour”.
He just [said nothing]. And to me this is an Islamic principle which takes you back to what is the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong. In my belief we’ve all departed from this. This is where I find solace as an adult.
While my Mum was alive all I wanted was to protect her. In many respects I was the emotional adult with her. She was diagnosed with motor-neurone disease. It was an awfully cruel disease. Nearing the end, when she could still speak, she looked at me and said “I’m sorry”.
My anger was never with Mum or Dad. They were doing their best and when people do their best you can’t be angry with them. My anger was aimed at the abuser.
Why break the silence?
I want to encourage younger women to speak up — not just younger Muslim women, but across the board — to say it’s unacceptable. It’s not OK. There’s nothing Islamic about condoning abuse and continuing the silence around it. Violence against women is not [women’s] fault and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
It’s important to call out abuse and not allow these things to define you.
It’s important to shift the shame and place it where it belongs; with the abuser.
See Hana‘s full story on One Plus One today at 1:00pm with repeats on ABC News Channel over the weekend.
Family violence support services:
- 1800 Respect national helpline 1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line 1800 811 811
- Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491
- Lifeline (24 hour crisis line) 131 114
- Relationships Australia 1300 364 277